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The view from a digital Manhattan: leaders on the future of agency work

The view from a digital Manhattan: leaders on the future of agency work
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In the past 18 months, we’ve spent more time than ever talking about the kind of moment we’re in. Is this a time of pure disaster, or opportunity as well? Time to play it safe, or take a risk? Our US editor Kenneth Hayne sat down with agency leaders (huddled around New York, but what does the site mean these days?) to determine the current moment and what might come next.

It can be hard to recognize an opportunity until it’s too late – often at first glance, the opportunity will seem like a problem or a risk. In fact, depending on your outlook, the chances, problems, and risks are probably all the same.

This is a dilemma that agencies have had to contend with in the past 18 months, both for them and in their relationships with clients. The harmful impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on health is indisputable, but with the business world going through its biggest change in living memory, were there huge opportunities too?

According to a Zoom panel of 10 US agency leaders, the answer is “yes.” “We have the potential to accelerate a transition that would have taken 10 years — we’ve accelerated that to one year,” says Michael Lebowitz, founder and CEO of Big Spaceship. “This creates incredible pressures on the scale, magnitude and intensity of change – but change is the business we are in.” The nexus of change for agencies will be in helping organizations keep pace with that acceleration; Helping them communicate and stay in touch with the fragmentation and speed of the world, rather than clinging to corporate matrix structures and silos and pretending that nothing has changed.

“The pandemic has shown that companies need intellectual partnership, help and direction — they can’t outsource everything,” said Judith Carr Rodriguez, CEO and Partner at Fig. Brands have turned to agencies in time of need during the pandemic, accelerating the realization that agencies can deeply integrate into a brand’s business, increasing speed and agility without compromising quality.

Brad Sims, President and CEO at Gill, agrees, “Integration will be a mantra for agencies in the coming months and years. In some cases, this will see brands merging their accounts, and one agency merging more deeply than ever before; in others, it will mean creating Teams from different agencies, with the main selection criteria being how well they are able to integrate (even, perhaps, when the credentials of others are most impressive).”

This represents a major change in the way brands view agencies, says Michael Olay, managing director of R/GA. “In the past, they viewed agencies as specialists they would go to for services. Now, they are starting to ask agencies to be a little more in their world, not just relying on RFIs and RFPs and feeds, but to be forward-thinking for them.”

Real threats and real opportunities

Of course, all this talk of opportunity doesn’t make the threats out there any less realistic. We may be bored of hearing the looming threats to big business from blockchain, cookieless browsing and the metaverse, but they contain a real risk to brands, says Chris Garbutt, Senior Creative Officer at Vice Media Group. The biggest danger is becoming irrelevant in all of it. The biggest challenge is finding a connection that is of value to the audience.” Again, though, challenge and opportunity come hand in hand. “Our biggest opportunity is to help brands navigate this change and be right on top.” It all “requires A whole new way to think about marketing. Creatively speaking, this is very exciting because there is only white space. It’s wide open.”

Brands’ panic hasn’t just changed the way they work with agencies; It also changed who he was communicating with. Old allies of major marketers and agencies have increasingly found themselves working with chief brand officers, chief technology officers, chief experienced officers, and chief information officers — the list, probably, goes on. The long-revered death of isolated businesses may finally be on its way, with an increasingly comprehensive approach to change begun, no doubt, with the help of agencies whose reach through organizations has transcended to the surface. For Cristina DeGuardi, President and Chief Client Officer at Giant Spoon, “Agency is winning now by understanding the actual audience, actually understanding the client’s business, and delving into the nooks and crannies of that business.”

The challenge, then, is editing, says Lisa Clooney of Joanne Studios—for the agencies and the clients they help. With every platform available and entry costs constantly decreasing, which platforms are most important? The role of agencies in this open world is to simplify, set the stage and show leadership. For Jason Harris of Mekanism, that makes simplification the password for 2022. “In a world that’s so noisy and so complex, being simple and consistent with your message, your audience and your tactic – how you’re going to get out to market – that wins the day. If you try to do it all, it’s over. You are nothing and no one will know what you stand for.”

Speaking of 2022, if there is one trend that should threaten agencies’ ability to deliver this kind of change, it’s what is variously called the “big leave” or “big quits” — the late pandemic trend of resignations that portends a talent deficit. For Dan Langletz, Head of Expansion at Strawberry Frog, it should remind us that our industry is an industry that revolves around people; If nothing else, the next 12 months should be about “finding ways to connect with people…our agencies are at risk of eroding if there is no human contact.” The connections that underpin our business—whether it’s with a new employee, a desperate CTO, or an old senior marketing partner—are based on emotion. Vayner Media’s Lisa Buckley reduces the challenge for agencies to one of working with true empathy, “to underpin everything we do with empathy for people, clients, and brands.”

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