Stop Being an Agency and Start Being an Agent of Change

Think More About Business Ideas Than Ad Campaigns

By Published on .

Wayne Arnold
Wayne Arnold
Ten years ago the chairman of MIT's Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, commented that any company that describes itself as an "agency" is doomed. He's right. Agencies -- as middlemen between media owners and brand owners -- are today merely commoditized suppliers and not the creative business partners our predecessors once were. Agencies, simply, are not as important as we used to be.

In the 1960s, so the story goes, British miller Rank Hovis McDougall approached advertising agency J. Walter Thompson with a problem: surplus flour. In those days agencies had ideas about the base material of their clients' companies. They added value to the raw stuff of their businesses. They created brands out of those ideas. What emerged from JWT was one of Britain's best-loved brands for decades, Mr. Kipling Cakes, which has since created value of about £2 billion. Around the same time here in the U.S., Mary Wells created an exciting new way to travel, Braniff, out of a dull gray airline ("the end of the plain plane"), spurring 15 years of rapid business expansion.

Then, agencies were often larger organizations because they needed a whole raft of specialists: product-development teams, package design, interior design, sales promotion, in-store marketing, direct marketing and PR. When agencies began making money primarily from TV advertising, the less-profitable disciplines were pushed out, and with them went much of agencies' ability to formulate and execute business-changing ideas.

Today, as the CEOs of large companies wonder how to grow their businesses, where do they turn for ideas? Not to advertising agencies but to management consultancies and the consulting arms of big accountancy firms.

So what can agencies do to once again become creative business partners?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary includes two subtly different definitions of the word "agent": "a person or company that acts as a broker and provides a specified service" and "a person or thing that exerts power or produces an effect." Transforming current, commoditized agencies from the first definition into the second -- making them agents of change -- is what matters to me here.

Sometimes you have to look to the past to take stock of the present and change for the future. There is no doubt in my mind that, just as in Mary Wells' day, what will help agencies survive these tricky times are ideas -- brilliant, business-focused ideas.

Being an agent of change means looking at "business issues." So for me, the real starting point of a campaign is not the client brief but the company report, because in those first few pages is every brief you're going to need for the next three to five years. How a company operates is far more revealing than what a brand is doing and saying.

If you think of yourself as an agent of change, then the ideas you have for your clients start to look very different indeed. For example, if a pharma client wants to get closer to the medical industry, we don't give them an idea for an ad. We give them nurses and a training program which enables a nurse to do 95% of what a doctor can do in half the training time. Now that's delivering real value and long-term sustainable brand credit.

Agents of change recognize that brilliant ideas can come from anywhere, and increasingly it's not from agencies. In 2008, the second-most highly awarded group in The Big Won, an annual survey of the world's best advertising as measured by the quantity and quality of awards won, was "in-house," prompting a German newspaper to call in exasperation saying, "We can't find this agency 'In-House' anywhere."

At Profero we've put our money where my mouth is by opening Factory Shanghai, an experimental mash-up of Andy Warhol's Factory, my agency's office space and a Soho-House-style entertainment experience. It is our vision of the future of facilitation, collaboration and innovation. In one example of looking for ideas from outside the client-agency complex, we brought an international brand owner to meet a lingerie designer who makes blue movies in her spare time and an engineer who created a disco powered by the energy of the dancers. Stop dancing and the music goes off. The brand owner didn't leave with a new ad concept. Instead he walked away with ideas for a clothing line; a new music track; priceless inspiration; and, most importantly for us, a transformed perception of what our business can deliver.

The most significant difference between the ideas that transformed businesses in the past and those that will in the future is digital -- the biggest single agent of change today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. Why? Because digital is fundamentally bringing companies' core values and products closer to their consumers in both positive and negative ways like never before.

Agents of change embrace the digital revolution. Ours is not the first industry to get turned inside out -- the transformation of the music business being one of the most significant and well documented -- but out of adversity comes opportunity. Digital impacts everything, from sales and marketing to distribution to customer service, and I believe it's the biggest single lever agencies can use to create business changing ideas and regain credibility as creative business partners.

When Chrysalis ended the recording contract of big-in-the-'80s rock group Marillion, the band used thousands of e-mail addresses they had been collecting at gigs and the band's website to ask their fans if they'd pay upfront for a new album. The fans obliged and, by maintaining their publishing rights, the band made a tidy profit. They did the same thing when it came to touring. Fans told them where to tour and so they pre-sold tickets to finance gigs. Now the very people who fired Marillion want their advice. I think we can guess where their leader singer told them to go.

We talk to clients about how they should change their structures, align with their value, fulfill their promises -- even change their premises. And we tell them they have to change how they think about communications and media, too.

And that's what's so exciting at the moment. The world is turning upside down, creating amazing opportunities for those nimble enough or those who have the vision to change. These companies will go back to being creative business partners to clients once again. That's where we are headed. I hope to see you there sometime in the future.

Wayne Arnold is CEO of Profero, North America.
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