Even with 630 attendees from 18 countries, the ad-agency world was sorely underrepresented. Ogilvy was one traditional,full-service agency with someone there, but to be fair, she was presenting. Another brand, Wunderman did show up, but it was the Brazilian, not U.S., office, attending. For the traditional, full-service agencies, that was about it. Such a tepid showing -- at a conference whose opening keynote was delivered by Sally Hogshead, a former Creative Director/Managing Director at Crispin Porter+Bogusky.
On the other hand, 21 of the Fortune 500 companies were represented and 11 of the Fortune 50 (that 's 22 %). Do they know something we don't?
Over beers after the opening night, I ran an informal focus group of presenters. The social media consultant Jay Baer had the best take on what we were witnessing: "Agencies largely whiffed on the first digital revolution and have been forced to play catch up via mergers and buyouts for a decade. They're frantically trying to catch the social media wave, and now seem to be missing what may be the larger play -- content marketing. It's a huge opportunity moving forward, and the lack of agency attendance here suggests that maybe history is destined to repeat itself."
Given that content marketing is all about writing, photography, video production and the assembly of that content into persuasive modules, it does seem odd that a conference held a stone's throw from two of the largest ad-agency centers in the universe (Chicago and New York City) would see virtually no interest from ad land.
It's not so surprising when you consider recent findings by RSW/US, a business development firm based in Cincinnati. In its survey of 174 "key marketing decision makers" from across the country in March ("A Client's Look Ahead at Agencies"), the firm found that only 18% of marketers believe that traditional, full-service firms have solid digital skills, down from 22 % in 2009-2010.
This, a full decade after the digital revolution started -- the revolution that traditional agencies missed as smaller digital-only agencies came to dominate that new field. Look over the social-media landscape and again, you'll see a world dominated by small, social-media-focused agencies, with full-service firms scratching to gain a foothold.
Why were traditional ad agencies largely absent from these last two major marketing evolutions? Unlike digital/social-media firms, the full-service shops failed to make the investment in people, tools and knowledge ahead of client demand. They outsourced until they were confident they'd make money, and only then did they rush into the fray. If full-service shops want to gain a piece of the next evolution – content marketing – they'll need to step forward now, ahead of client demand.
Whatever the traditional firms do, or don't do, small agencies have a great chance to get the jump on our larger, slow-moving brethren. Why? Because, content marketing favors lower cost, nimble production methods and, let's face it, convincing senior management to adopt these kinds of processes, is harder to accomplish at a mega-holding company than a small, privately owned agency.
At my firm, for instance, we spent 2011 making strategic investments in equipment and talent to allow us to create much of the content we require for our social-media and content-marketing campaigns in-house. Already the investments have paid for themselves and will likely begin turning profits before the year is out.
There was a time (or so I'm told by my elder agency brothers) when clients looked to ad agencies for leadership and guidance about coming trends. If we want those days to return, we must focus on seeing "what's next" and diving in before, not after, our clients and prospects do.