It wasn't always this way. Despite the mergers and acquisitions that swept the agency world in the 1980s, a new generation of shops came along that in some cases (Hal Riney & Partners comes instantly to mind) reinvigorated the business. It's doubtful an agency such as Riney (now owned by Publicis) could be born today.
The transformation of agencies from fiercely independent entrepreneurial enterprises to publicly held mega-giants comes in response, of course, to marketer consolidation. Most clients today demand that their agencies offer global reach and seamlessly integrated communications capabilities. Those shops that don't face a choice: shrink or sell.
In some ways the change is inevitable, and it may be impossible to characterize it as either a "good" or "bad" thing. It's simply a fact. Still it's impossible not to mourn the loss of the very spirit on which the entire agency business was built. And it raises significant questions about whether agencies can still lure the sharpest young talent, particularly in the digital age.
Half a century ago, a copywriter named Bill Bernbach-fearing that the rapid growth of Grey Advertising would stifle its creativity-teamed with Maxwell Dane and Ned Doyle to make advertising history. Today, he'd probably quit the agency business, take a pay cut to join a dot-com startup, make a ton of money off the IPO and retire before his 40th birthday.
There are no doubt a handful of ambitous and talented people hanging out shingles and arrogantly conspiring to prove us wrong. We hope they do just that.