What if the advertising agency died tomorrow?

VeraSage senior fellow Tim Williams, founder of Ignition, a consultancy devoted to helping marketing organizations create and capture more value, recently wrote an excellent article. I’ve had the great good fortune of working with Tim now for several years. He is constantly innovating and challenging agencies (and me!) to be better than even they themselves think is possible. It would be hard to find a deeper and better thinker than Tim in the advertising world.

He graciously gave me permission to publish his article, which I believe can be applied just as easily to law, accounting and technology firms. There’s nothing sacred about a profession, folks. They can die, especially if they are not constantly innovating and adding value. Take Tim’s following thought experiment to heart:

Account planners have an innovative research technique they call “The Obituary.” In individual interviews or small groups, planners ask consumers, “Let’s say this brand just died. Write an obituary for the brand. What did it die of? Who will miss it? Who will come to the funeral?”

Respondents are asked to put the brand’s obituary in writing. Out of these responses come some fascinating insights about how consumers really feel about brands.

In seminars we teach around the country, we sometimes engage advertising professionals in an obituary exercise for something that’s near and dear to their hearts: the advertising agency. What do agency executives say when asked to write an obituary for the agency?

  • “Here lies the advertising agency. It struggled for years to remain relevant in the face of changing consumers, media habits and fierce competition. It was too big and too slow to be nimble, and reluctant to walk away from its heritage of thirty second spots. It died stubborn and alone.”

  • “The advertising agency passed of a narrow mind. It died from a lack of understanding that there is no such thing as “new media”. There is just media, and it is everything and everywhere—countless opportunities to create a connection with consumers beyond that which people used to call “advertising”
  • “The advertising agency, previously known for creativity, innovation and understanding consumer behavior finally died today. This was a long, slow death, prolonged by bad habits such as always taking orders from clients rather than solving problems; becoming production houses rather than developing ideas; and going after any and all new business rather than deciding who we are and what we want to be.”

These responses came mostly from young professionals in their 20’s and early 30’s. It’s telling that even this age group believes our industry is headed for extinction if we don’t change our ways.

To breathe new life into our business, we need to focus our attention on key questions like these:

  1. What is the real value we should be delivering to clients? What do clients really pay us for?

  2. How can we address client perceptions that the traditional account executive role has lost its value?
  3. How can we break down the traditional department silos and get all functions engaged in developing media-neutral, cross-channel solutions?
  4. How can we better adapt to the changing nature of client relationships (shorter engagements, rapid client turnover, etc.).
  5. What capabilities do we need to effectively make the transition from mass communications to one-to-one communications?
  6. How can we retool the production function to be more versatile and creative?
  7. How can we demonstrate the accountability today’s clients want from their agency relationship?

The advertising agency as we know it is changing in revolutionary—not evolutionary—ways. Remember, you can’t cross a chasm with incremental steps.

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