Why No One is an Agency Anymore, and Why No One Cares

the death of advertising agencies

Last week I came across a string of agencies trying to convince me they were anything but what they are.

Several took on the tone of anti-heros, explaining how they were  great at losing pitches, and not winning awards (link withheld, just ask.). Still others picked names like Not an Advertising Agency or We Are Anti Agency, as their manifesto of difference.

Brutus, thou protesteth too much
At the moment it seems that everyone is keen to be something other than what they are, or at least different than who their competitors were last year. Even as they pursue the very same budget.

Production companies want to be ‘branded content’ producers. PR agencies want to be social media experts (here have a digital press release.) Social Media agencies (and naive SEO’s) are pitching as public relations firms.

Direct Marketing shops are now ‘integrated’ marketers, and event shops now do brand activation and brand experiences. Meanwhile digital shops seem thrilled to be picking up out-of-work ad planners from those now non-ad agencies. Half of digital spend continues to be online advertising – but no, they aren’t ad agencies either.

If you can find an ad agency, they are likely disguised as ‘idea companies’ or ‘brand building business partners’. And then there’s the MathMen, never an agency, they provide platforms to help those integrated multi-channel media partners from ever seeming Don Draperesque.

Naming vs. Helping
One of the best pieces of business advice I ever heard came from Owen Robbins of Teradyne, who on buying into our start-up gave us free reign to rename it. But just for thirty days. “Naming”, he explained, “can be a distraction.” Thirty days later we had no name, the business continued, grew, and was sold at a nice multiple of revenue with a still difficult name.

Speaking of difficult names, I like how the firm Analtech considered its name change. They emailed their clients and asked if they should change it. “Nope, make us new products instead” was the clear response from their buyers of analytical technology.

Agencies spend a huge amount of time agonizing on naming. It’s a process in which lots of people rationalize why what they do is different from others. But clients don’t shop based on a desire for difference, they invest in teams that can help solve their problems.

The difference between Heaven and Hell
Truth is, agencies are collections talented people, and so are client businesses. Either there’s chemistry and alignment, or there’s not. The difference between Heaven and Hell is who you’re with, and clients really do want to know your team.

Here’s advice the Forrester gave to agencies a few years ago, courtesy of Edward Boches blog:

  • Share Ideas:  note this does not mean messages or ads
  • Interact:  engagement, connection, community, media
  • Leverage Intelligence, as in you need to collect, report, analyze and predict: if you don’t have robust analytics, you’re in big trouble


Culture and People Trump Name
Before anyone cares about your firm’s fastidious portfolio, or awards, or its name – they want to see how your people bring market insights to life, who trusts them, and if this kind of thinking can thrive inside their business.

Take my word, heavy-up on finding great people who can become a solid work culture culture will make you happier than ceaselessly spinning AdAge’s agency name generator. After all, why else would someone marry a guy whose last name is “Wieneke”? (Which I can now confide Microsoft Word suggested for years might be better spelled as “hanukkah” or “venison”)

Names don’t make us good. Sometimes, we’re good in spite of them.

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