Much has been written about creative agencies needing a toe tag. For years, article after article and expert after expert have predicted a dim future for the model that inspired the three martini lunch. Most notably was when Procter & Gamble CBO Marc Pritchard called for the end of the “archaic Mad Men model.”
But let’s face it — creative agencies aren’t going to change. Whether traditional or digital, their core structure and legacy approach to solving marketing and advertising problems is simply too ingrained to switch direction.
That said, I’m going to disagree with Pritchard and say that, in my opinion, the current agency model shouldn’t go away. It could use some further adjustments and a refocusing of its priorities, but I don’t think we should flush it down the drain for good. The structure, the process, the red tape and even the complexity has relevance today. Less relevance than a decade ago, for sure, but it is far from irrelevant.
Today’s marketers need alternatives to the traditional agency
The problem today isn’t the traditional model; it’s the lack of credible alternative models. Today’s marketers don’t have one-size-fits-all needs, so they shouldn’t be forced to deal with a one-model-fits-all solution.
Let’s be honest, marketers — usually big, complex ones — often need the weighty infrastructure necessary to handle the daily, even hourly, grind of their needs. These needs require a traditional agency and its multi-disciplined resources — project and account management, strategy, research, creative, etc. This legacy structure and process might not be the only way to handle such a grind, but I’d argue that it’s the best because it’s been built for it.
Take, for example, AXE and all of its branded products — I can speak to this because I spent many years working with AXE inside the four walls of a traditional agency and helped launch some of their products. To state the obvious, AXE is a behemoth. It has many elements on the burner simultaneously — creative, strategic, research, production and more. In addition, each Unilever brand has marketing managers, brand managers, assistant brand managers and the eyes and ears of a chain of upper management. And all of that needs constant attention.
As such, until Unilever is prepared, internally, to help solve this burden of high-maintenance, AXE needs the resources and structure of its traditional agency. I believe a beast like AXE would crush a smaller, streamlined and nimbler model.
However, there are smaller brands and startups, as well as contained projects within these big brands, that work differently and don’t always require this kind of all-hands-on-deck firepower. These are projects with a well-defined beginning and end. They don’t need the same kind of hourly hand holding. More and more, established businesses and start-ups have projects, large and small, where they already know what they need and simply want to work directly with the creative people who will develop and execute their solution — no need to build a strategy that’s already built, and no need for middlemen running interference, blocking or interpreting feedback.
Not that long ago, I was the head agency creative person sitting in a conference room with eight other people from different disciplines within the agency. Our client walked in, sat down next to me, leaned over and whispered, “Why are all these people here? Am I paying for this? I know what I want and all I need is you to help me get it.” And in that particular instance, he was right.
But therein lies the problem: A lot of that creative talent is locked up inside of these full-service agencies. To access it, marketers need to put up with, and pay for, the rest of the slow, bloated, soup-to-nuts system. Agencies will argue that their creative people can’t possibly begin working until several time-consuming and costly steps are completed. Not because it’s true, but because it’s legacy.
Another problem is the speed that many creative ideas need to move ar today. The traditional agency model has a built-in delay that comes from things like the up-front, strategic-preparation and briefing process. The “everybody gets to review and be heard” process, as well as outsourcing the production of ideas. These things, and others, add time, cost, inefficiency and, frankly, overkill to some creative projects that require speed. This is simply another aspect of the current model agencies aren’t willing to change. Believe me, when I was inside of those agencies I tried.
What marketers truly need are options. Not options of which shade of blue they want, but a blue option, a yellow option and a green polka-dot one. Businesses need alternatives that give them the ability to pick from entirely different models depending on the needs of the project.
New alternatives to the traditional model are out there
There’s the opportunity: A creative-only model — creative development and production in a single, fast-paced, efficient model.
That’s the premise here. Put the kind of creative problem solving talent you find in traditional agencies with world-class executional talent. Get everyone else out of the way and set them free on projects, beginning to end, that don’t need the full-agency treatment. Not as a replacement to the current full-service structure, but as another, stand-alone option for marketers to tap into.
The good news for brands of all sizes, including startups, is that this model has already emerged — you just may not know about it. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t emerged from the agency side (with some exceptions) but rather from resilient, resourceful and intrepid creative people who see beyond the complacency.
Many of these creative front-runners are developing deep relationships with production companies to give brands, large and small, access to the kinds of ideas and execution that can change their brand fortunes without draining their bank account fortunes. Clients get direct access to the talent that generates the creative solutions they need.
Notable new models, like Mischief, are an excellent example of streamlining creativity and putting it front and center. It takes great creative talent out from behind their corporate desk and puts their creativity to paper again. Shops like Mischief are less structure-forward and more idea-forward. They value big, platform-agnostic ideas and don’t have the same massive infrastructure that needs to be fed a steady diet of dollars.
This idea-forward model is being housed inside of production companies as well. Where production companies used to only execute pre-determined ideas (usually developed inside of creative agencies), now they have built the internal capabilities to develop the ideas themselves. They aren’t building the same full-service capabilities as traditional agencies, so they’re limited in the kinds of projects they can accommodate. But they are building fast, efficient and highly-experienced creative capabilities that deliver excellent creative products.
Tool of North America is a good example of this way of working. They have internal creative talent that is not only capable of executing ideas, but also the talent and experience to develop them from scratch. In addition, many of these production houses are creating relationships with some of the world’s best independent creative talent on the outside that they can bring in when needed.
And this is awesome for today’s marketing needs because it provides brands with an alternative. Product marketing teams, brand teams, content teams and even sales teams can now, in some instances, bypass the legacy approach to problem solving that can act like an anchor tied to the bumper of a Ferrari and simply go straight to creative solutions.
A variety of options creates new opportunities for all brands
Bottom line, I believe creative agencies have been looking at maintaining their relevance all wrong. They try to accommodate the changes taking place in marketing today by looking inward and tweaking their core structure. In reality, they should be looking at what marketers need today and making decisions that create new options.