Can Fat Birds Fly?

Cannes Panel to Explore Whether Ad Agencies Can Remain Relevant; Questions Welcome

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Later this week, I'm traveling to Cannes for the International Advertising Festival, where I'll moderate a panel discussion Friday that might as well be titled "When Trains Fly: The Agency Edition." The Cannes organizers have actually labeled it "Now or Never: Reinventing the Agency Model." The panelists are a great group, representing a diversity of business models and mindsets.

I've got Andrew Roberston, president-CEO of the giant global network BBDO; Dave Droga, who used to work in the big-agency structure and is now building Droga5 from scratch (albeit under Publicis' corporate roof); the legendary Jeff Goodby, whose Goodby, Silverstein & Partners is still revered for its creative prowess and has worked hard to change with the times; and Daniel Morel, chairman-CEO of direct agency Wunderman. A smart, charismatic bunch, and I don't expect them to sling (too much) B.S. My plan is to cut through all the empty talk about change and challenge them on specifics, and they are as aware as anyone how much is at stake for the industry in confronting its issues.

Cannes is a great global gathering, so a nice stage for this chat. The things I intend to focus on include: probing into how their internal structures and compensation plans have changed; how they're dealing with the talent issue; ownership of ideas; whether size matters; the impact of consumer-generated content; and the reality of being nibbled by would-be rivals on every side, from strategy to execution. I've asked the panelists to use real-life examples to illustrate the bigger issues, by talking about specific projects done for actual clients, by showing how their organizations and output have changed in concrete ways.

Here's the write-up I provided for the Cannes festival program: "Every traditional advertising agency talks about the need to change, but successfully navigating that challenge is a vastly more difficult task—and there's no guarantee that those who try will make it through to the other side. After all, everything about the agency business—from structures and compensation to processes and output—is built around a legacy model that no longer works. How can big, profitable shops make the transition to remain relevant players in the digital age? And can they do it before swifter, more nimble (and baggage-free) upstarts eat their lunch?"

I'd love to hear what readers of this column think on the issue, and also whether you have any specific questions you'd like me to put to my panelists. I'll be happy to add more tough challenges for those guys, and I will write up a report on the panel after it's over.

Side note: I don't actually arrive in Cannes until Thursday morning (June 21), so won't be able to give color commentary from there before then. But there will be wall-to-wall coverage from the editors of Ad Age and Creativity to keep you entertained and informed, so check in often.

Second side note: The headline for this posting needs to come with a nod to a small independent agency that tried years ago to challenge the traditional model. Justamere Agency was its name, in New Jersey, and as I recall its slogan was, "Fat Birds Don't Fly." Whether or not that's true remains to be seen, but they sure are flapping their wings hard.

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