Quitting, Leaving, Retiring: Why Aren't Ad Agencies Rewiring?

Five Tenets for Shops of the Future

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Daniele Fiandaca
Daniele Fiandaca
This year, the advertising industry saw new agencies emerge, mature talent bow out and up-and-comers grow increasingly wary of big-agency job descriptions threatening to stifle creativity. As Ad Age pointed out recently, there is a new reality facing the industry's efforts to maintain and attract talent. Factors like an uncertain economy, the proliferation of digital and social media and the commoditization of creativity are all contributing to the subsequent burnout many people in adland are currently experiencing.

In the history of the ad industry, there have been four significant periods of change. On the back of technological advancements such as nationally networked television and full-color printing of photography in print media, the 1960s saw the birth of a new advertising model. Then, in the '80s, we saw the advent of media independents, which led to the eventual split of media and creative. The '90s marked the emergence of planning agencies, and "the aughts" will surely be remembered for the manifestation of digital agencies.

It's not as if we weren't warned about change. In 500 BC, Confucius predicted the future of marketing communications when he said, "Tell me and I'll forget/Show me and I'll remember/Involve me and I'll understand." This has become the foundation for the future of our industry, but we are finding ourselves woefully unprepared to modernize and, despite all of this growth and advancement, the underlying business model has remained essentially the same.

Mind boggling isn't it? We're relying on a model established nearly 50 years ago to carry us into the future where massive changes are taking place in the wider media world. It's no wonder this model isn't working for us, as evidenced by the fact that industry talent is leaving places they fear can't and won't change.

For the most part, it's not that agencies don't want to evolve. They are simply stuck in old processes and production models that can't adjust. I hear it from my students in every class I facilitate. Well-established agencies are really struggling to figure out how to shift their focus and think beyond single disciplines such as "advertising" and "digital." They are trying to change their DNA -- no small feat compared with the characteristics baked in at smaller, startup agencies born in the digital age.

So what to do next? Destroy and rebuild.

The good news is that while we've been buzzing with concern and bubbling over with frustration about our current circumstance, the industry has begun to identify a list of core characteristics future agency models should have: We want new models that allow creativity to thrive; we want fewer silos and the freedom to create more inspired solutions for clients; we want to cultivate talent rather than cheapen it; we want leadership with the seniority, digital know-how and skill set to unite teams.

These goals are admirable and attainable -- if we're prepared to destroy the model we created and start from scratch. In a recent class, my students asked me where I'd start if I were to build my dream agency from the ground up. Here's what I told them:

1. Give social tools to everyone
"Digital" is not a discipline. It is now the undercurrent for everything we do, and everyone at an agency should have the tools to understand social so that they can change their behavior.

2. Create new processes and test them
This is new to everyone. We cannot be afraid to think big or fail big. There will be mistakes made along the way, but within each will be a new learning for us to share and grow from.

3. Get rid of the egos on teams
Ideas come from anywhere, and people need to get comfortable with that concept. A line from "Mad Men" clarified, "we are artisans, not artists." We create work for clients. We are not building portfolios, we are driving business for the brands we represent.

4. Give people time to learn
Change doesn't happen overnight. Affording people adequate time to learn, grow and embrace new ways of doing things is important. But be ruthless with those who are not willing to embrace change.

5. Invest in helping top talent rewire their brains Digital coaching and training programs are available to help agencies become better connected and integrated. Invest in the education process. The earlier people are involved, the more enthusiastic they become.

Daniele Fiandaca is cofounder of Creative Social and a regular speaker at Hyper Island's Master Classes. He is the former European CEO of Profero.

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