Is The Agency Model in Crisis?

Rob Brown's picture
by Rob Brown

I’ve been in communication agencies all my working life, in fact I’ve just set up a new one so it may seem a little odd to suggest that the model is at risk, but it is.  It’s not just the agency model but the very nature of the disciplines of advertising, marketing and public relations that are at a defining moment.

James Walter ThompsonJames Walter Thompson

James Walter Thompson went into the ad business in 1868 and the agency that he bought and renamed is still around. JWT is now part of the world’s most successful advertising and PR group, so the model surely can’t be that flaky. Most of the big groups are recovering the lost ground they suffered post the crash of 2008, but if agencies are going to remain credible and substantial contributors to the business of communications they need a serious wake-up call.

The first mind-numbingly obvious point is that the communications models have changed.

We watch TV on laptops. Commuters download programmes from the iPlayer to watch on phones and iPads on the train. Prolific North is an industry title that doesn’t touch dead wood and ink. There’s a good chance that you found this piece via a link on Twitter.

Yet when media scheduling and consumption habits change beyond recognition, the agency model has remained pretty much the same. The creative director might have been joined by a digital creative director and advertising agencies might call themselves brand consultants or interruption architects but they’ve adapted rather than reinvented their structures. Creativity and more recently technology, are too often siloed when they should be embraced by and delivered by everybody working in the agency business.

What is the sense in having a digital team when digital runs through everything?  In the words of a recent Forrester report “CMOs will have to overcome the current divide between digital marketing and brand marketing to successfully develop and implement compelling brand experiences.”  If Chief Marketing Officers are ignoring the boundaries why are some agencies dragging their heels?

If your role is to manage news, build reputations or reveal new products and services then you need to understand the dynamic of search.  If Google’s author rank is going to have a major impact on news and journalism then surely it is the job of every PR person to understand how it works.

The agency business...has thrived on spin and illusion


The agency business, be it PR or advertising, has thrived on spin and illusion.  It’s over. If the client wants to know exactly how many people work at her or his agency and what the staff turnover is like it’s all on LinkedIn. If you want to know about their performance over the last couple of years a free search on Company Check should give you a pretty good idea. If your agency tells you your campaign website had 10,000 hits last month, Alexa should give you a pretty good indication of whether that’s true. The ‘social media guru’ that joined Twitter in January and has 35 followers will need to have amassed a measurable community elsewhere on the web if they are going to attract any but the most naive of clients.

Some agencies still don’t seem to understand this. The agencies that survive and thrive will do so by offering counsel on what to do, not just what to say. Their own behaviour will also be on display.

Brian ChildBrian Child

During his 25 years at McCann Erickson, Brian Child presided over the emergence of one of the UK’s biggest agencies operating from a field in the heart of the Cheshire countryside. I should clarify; the agency is based in Bonis Hall, a grade II listed former country residence in a field, not the field itself.

He implored his staff to “wear the client’s jacket”. It was clearly right for the time but I believe we need to give our clients their clothes back. The authentic voice of an organisation comes from that organisation. Agencies need to provide knowledge, insight, understanding and innovative thought. We shouldn’t be providing an inauthentic voice. Too many public relations firms in particular perform a form of latter day ventriloquism, impersonating the voice of the client with lips that barely move. The audience can see you.

Agencies have been fighting the wrong battles


Agencies in all disciplines have spent the last few years fighting the wrong battles - namely with each other. These turf wars have done nothing to serve the interests of any of us.  Media agencies believe that because social networks are the new advertising platforms they should own the territory.

Creativity is about content so that puts the advertising agencies in the driving seat unless the content is news, which is where the PR team comes in, who, by the way, are also the experts on engagement. These internecine battles ignore the simple truth that the whole is usually greater than the sum of its parts.

The agency is only really as good as its last job but too often it can’t really demonstrate how good its last job was. The web offers us an extraordinary array of tools to measure outcomes and behaviour. It is an opportunity that agencies must grasp. There may never be the holy grail of an industry wide measurement and evaluation system but we can track the impact of marketing communications activity on trust, behavioural change and commercial activity.  We must put this at the heart of what we offer.

The business of evaluation is deeply intertwined with the commercial fortunes of the agency model. We charge for time because it is relatively easy to measure but do clients care how long a particular task takes? We charge for strategy or even ideas if we can, because we have identified these as premium products. What clients really buy is the difference we can make to their businesses. Wouldn’t it be better if we found a way to measure that?

I believe the agency model is under threat from all of these but if we understand the challenge and we radically change our behaviour it’s a crisis that we can overcome.


About Rob Brown


Rob BrownRob Brown has worked in PR for over 20 years and for over fifteen years held senior PR positions within three major global advertising networks; Euro RSCG, McCann Erickson and TBWA. He launched his own business ‘Rule 5’ with former colleague Julie Wilson in November 2012. Rob is the author of ‘Public Relations and the Social Web’ (2009), blogs for The Huffington Post and is joint editor of the forthcoming 'Share This Too' (2013).




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