Creating the Future of Adland

How Agencies Can Escape the Commodity Trap

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
I used to really enjoy reading Mike Barnicle's column in the Boston Globe. He wrote a frequent feature called "I Was Just Thinking," where he would string together a series of random thoughts and observations that I always found pretty entertaining. My all-time favorite was: "I can only enjoy a hot dog when there's a baseball game in front of it." It turns out that Barnicle had borrowed the format from Mike Royko, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and there were other rumors of plagiarism. None of this bothered me because advertising people thrive on the creative adaptation of ideas swirling around in the wide-open spaces of popular culture.

So with a tip of the hat to Mike Barnicle, and who ever came before him, my blog topic this week is "Not That Anybody Cares, but I Was Just Thinking About the Future of Advertising Agencies." Let me assure you I have not been influenced by facts or research. These are hunches and intuitions that come from hanging out with the right drinking buddies. Neither do I claim that these are all original thoughts. They are just five of the trends that I believe are going to separate the leaders from everybody else.

  1. Agencies will move from providing audience insight to providing audience access. The best agencies will either help create or manage customer communities for their clients. They will also create client specific media channels -- whether it is Twitter feeds or Internet radio -- which can be used to deliver specific campaigns.

  2. Agencies will move from creating messaging and brand image to creating content at every stage of the customer experience. You can see this all around you as agencies develop everything from mobile applications to branded entertainment for their clients. For successful agencies, these will not be one-off novelties. They will reinvent their business model so that they share many of the same attributes as publishers and production companies.

  3. In 2010, social-media hysteria will turn to social-media cynicism. Banish the words "start a dialogue" and "authenticity" from your vocabulary. The winning agencies will develop social-media applications that provide real utility to clients and their customers.

  4. Instead of creating integrated marketing campaigns, forward-thinking agencies will integrate all the significant marketing platforms. Social media meets CRM meets search meets ad servers. Agencies with the technology savvy to work across all these disciplines will have the decided edge.

  5. The holy grail for agencies will remain the same. Can they influence business results? Campaign measurement will become an automated commodity. The great agencies will adapt the right analytic tools to tackle fundamental business problems.
Most of us in the business predict ongoing downward pressure on pricing. That will continue as long as agencies continue to limit themselves to communications services that can be increasingly commoditized. A few smart people will find a way out of this business dilemma by elevating themselves above a service provider and by becoming a gateway for clients to get access to their audiences, to create the experience that customers have with a brand, and to manage the flow of marketing information that supports the business. This will be great for clients, and for a few lucky agencies.

To a large degree, the future of agencies depends on what clients want and their enthusiasm for exploring the new marketing landscape. Predicting and pursuing change that doesn't offer obvious benefit to clients is a fool's errand. The most exciting dynamic is when agencies and clients share a vision and collaborate on the future together.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson

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