The New Mad Men: Evolving the Agency Model

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“There is a path back to partnership, but only for agencies that embrace a brave new business model, one that sheds archaic and crippling structures and leadership models to put clients at the center and accelerate the powerful combination of creative entrepreneurialism and brand execution.” Jay Pattisall and Ted Schadler, Forrester

I’ve been in the business of marketing for over 25 years, and I never wake up and say, “I know everything there is to know about marketing.” Every single day I’m humbled by the fact that you can learn as much from someone who’s been in the industry for 25 years as from someone who’s 25 years old.

But one thing is true: the marketing business is fueled by innovation, creativity, and transformation. However, the leading players in the industry often fail to catch up to their clients’ needs—mostly because they spend too much time defending ways of doing business that have worked in the past, rather than pushing for disruptive and more agile ways of bringing value to their clients.

From agency to in-house to somewhere in the middle

I started my career in advertising at one of the most awarded agencies in the world, BBDO, where I spent more than 20 years leading some of the world’s most beloved brands, working across more than 60 global markets. During my time there, I learned that creativity is at the soul of marketing. A powerful insight rooted in a universal human truth can inspire a unique and compelling idea that—if executed brilliantly—creates a powerful, sometimes magical, connection with consumers that builds trust and loyalty. I also saw firsthand how the power of diversity can have a big impact on the work. And not just diversity in terms of ethnic and cultural representation, but diversity in terms of thinking and skill set.

Later, I moved to the opposite end of the spectrum to build the in-house agency at Verizon, one of the largest advertisers in the US. The opportunity to build a team of more than 200 people from the ground up, in the shape of what I believe an internal creative team for the 21st century should look like, was one of the most professionally rewarding experiences of my life.

At Verizon, I learned the power of partnership and how proximity to the business unleashes an unparalleled advantage when it comes to understanding business needs, getting rid of layers of inefficiency, and making an impact quickly. Having proximity to insights also gives internal teams an advantage that few agencies have. When you’re in-house you get everything unfiltered, and some of the most relevant insights come from that raw exposure. Meanwhile, traditional agencies must rely on the access that clients give them.

Creativity, diversity, and partnership—imagine if you combined the three. The problem is that most agencies continue to struggle to embrace new business models that would allow them to thrive.

A changing industry

We are at an inflection point, clients and agencies alike. The pace of technology is accelerating, pushing us to market faster and to be in front of our audiences more frequently with relevant messaging. It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach.

Content is everywhere. It’s no surprise that marketers have a lot more responsibility and face bigger challenges to get their messages out on so many more channels and in more relevant ways.

The bottom line is that with all of this comes the pressure for efficiency. We’ve got to deal with the speed and the sheer amount of content required—and it all has to be cost-effective.

The path forward

The old structures of leadership and siloed divisions don’t work. The growing trend of brands reverting back to in-house teams is proof of that. But in-house teams can lack the elements of innovation and inspiration that cross-pollination between diverse business categories and verticals brings to agency folks.

The ideal agency-client relationship pulls the best from both worlds. A new paradigm that is driven by partnership—where client and agency move forward together as one to focus on quality, speed, and value.

Quality: Having higher expectations around better-quality work grounded in insights and delivered on multiple channels flawlessly is a requirement. Agencies need to be even more aligned and in lockstep with their clients. Things are moving too fast, expectations are higher, and there’s no extra time to waste.

Speed: Consumption of information has changed, and consumers and businesses alike are looking for content that’s current and relevant, requiring fast turnaround times and an always-on marketing mentality. The days of having months to create concepts are gone. Clients not only want the best creative campaigns that deliver impact, but they’ve also become incredibly impatient. Everything has to be instantaneous. And, if it’s not instantly fabulous, it’s gone in a second.

Value: Marketing teams are constantly being pushed to be more efficient and to deliver content in faster increments that are not only of the highest quality but is also delivered more cost-effectively. Yes, why can’t an agency deliver more for less? Seems like they should, otherwise they’ll be replaced by someone who will.

The new model: partnership

The embedded agency model bridges the gap that has long kept clients and agencies apart, bringing creativity, diversity, and true partnership literally back to the table, where client and agency teams sit elbow to elbow in collaboration. The perfect balance of the cross-pollination a traditional creative agency can bring and the inside knowledge track of an in-house agency.

The most common misconception about the embedded model, however, is that simply putting people together in the same space is the solution. It takes a lot more than that. “Embedded” means teams are involved in strategic conversations much further upstream, it means that teams are briefed differently, in many cases, briefing themselves, and openly collaborating on an assignment to the point that ideas can flow more naturally and decisions are made faster. It’s a complete “turn-it-on-its-head” model that most traditional agencies are not familiar with or comfortable with.

The new agency model has creatives closer to decision-makers. And the role of the traditional account people will shift from “protecting the creatives from clients” to becoming true relationship connectors and efficiency facilitators.  In this model, there is no room for handoffs. And it suits the fluid and fast-moving creative workflows at top tech brands, startups, and Fortune 500 companies that want to remain nimble in responding to changing business conditions.

Being closer to decision-makers yields results that exceed expectations, while the collaborative process allows the client to be included and share ownership of any success. But one of the most valuable aspects of the collaborative model is that it eliminates the back and forth of costly revisions. If an idea fails, it fails early in the process before valuable resources are expended. And because failure is safe,  it leaves the door wide open for wild experimentation, innovation, and creativity.

A new era of Mad Men—or really, people—has begun. And I could not be more excited.

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