A room for 60 probably squeezed in about 80 agency-side people at SXSW on Saturday, all crammed into a small meetup space for a talk asking "Can agencies lead again?"
People in the doorway had to stretch their necks in to try to hear the discussion about what agencies, beset by pressure on their profit margins, can do to get back on top.
"And this is what's wrong with the agency model," said Betsy Wise, CCO of her own branding group. "Too many people in a meeting, and not enough getting done."
Ms. Wise was just joking about the room too full for her to even enter, but she was also kind of serious. She was there to talk about what agency workers can do to overcome the waning influence of their industry. She used to be in it, until she started her own company, and now sets her own hours.
"I'm working 30 hours a week, and I've easily doubled my salary, maybe tripled," Ms. Wise said.
Brands have been turning against the old agency-of-record model because it was too bloated. Today they are increasingly often seen as vendors, working on a project by project basis.
"I heard this when I was in the agency world from clients," Ms. Wise said. "'There are so many people on this phone call. This phone call is so expensive or this meeting is so expensive. Why do I have to talk to an account manager to talk to you?' There are so many layers between clients and creators."
These were the exact concerns that the crowd was raising at the meetup, which was run Jennifer Gove, president of Preston Kelly, a Minneapolis agency.
The discussion also turned to brands' moves to bring some work in-house or spread it among a roster of multiple agencies. Who leads then?
"It used to be the agency of record would be responsible for the outcomes," Ms. Gove said. Now frustrated agencies feel like they can get blamed for poor work that they didn't do without getting credit for the good work they actually do.
April Love, a freelancer with a company called Vanguard Creative, was at the talk to see what she could learn about the shifting industry, and admitted that her freelance work was part of what's undercutting the agencies.
"Agencies are getting really pushed out," Ms. Love said. "Because brands are bringing that model into their companies. So there's a lot of in-house and they don't want to outsource it to these large agencies. And then freelancers."
The environment is causing agencies to try to transform every time another client needs another type of creative work done. The agencies are jumping up to say they can do that, but not thinking about whether they should, Ms. Gove said.
"Full-service agencies are figuring out if they're going to stay full service or are they going to have a specialty," Ms. Gove said.