A lot of ink has been spilled about the changing nature of the agency business and at times more spectacularly, the death of the traditional agency. The authors of these articles are often from new agencies shaming their older brethren about their slow moves to digital and their continued reliance on TV spots at time when traditional TV is declining as a percentage of people’s overall media consumption. Then there are the mobile agencies claiming that traditional agencies don’t get mobile and the social agencies claiming that traditional agencies don’t get social.
To paraphrase: “We get the new world of media – You don’t – We are the future – You’re dead.”
And yes, there is some truth to this critique: many agencies have been built around specific expertise that are less relevant today than they were years ago – and some of these agencies have had difficulty in evolving to better serve today’s media landscape.
But here’s the thing: these are issues that can be solved with some smart hires, a strong acquisition, and/or a few weeks of staff training at General Assembly. This is not a death sentence, it’s a diagnosis of the common cold: consumers change, so you must continually rethink the ways that you connect with them.
As is often the case, we’re too focused on the easy questions to take notice of the real, more troubling concerns. Here’s what we see as the trends that present a much more difficult challenge for all agencies (old and new), trends that don’t just impact what they do, but that are in conflict with the way their business is structured at its core:
– The rise of the freelance economy
– Clients who are bringing more “agency” capabilities in-house
– Clients who are rejecting traditional AOR relationships in favor of project by project work, where past performance is critical to getting ongoing work
More and more, the top talent who once worked at agencies aren’t relying on agencies for employment and, more and more, clients aren’t relying on agencies for work. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about traditional, digital, virtual, or some new channel that hasn’t yet been invented – because of these changes, the institution known as an agency is threatened.
We think the future will be built around collectives – groups of independent, executive level designers, strategists, writers, developers, and makers who regularly come together to work on specific client needs.
We think the future will no longer be about agencies – we think the future will be built around collectives – groups of independent, executive level designers, strategists, writers, developers, and makers who regularly come together to work on specific client needs. In the future, work with one client may not be as consistent, and the skills brought to that work may vary from project to project, but people will have more freedom to pursue the types of work they want to pursue and clients will have access to teams who are more accountable for great work.
The collective model involves less overhead and more risk than nearly all agencies today are structured to bear. For today’s agencies, getting there will likely mean an implosion of the business they know today – it’s not simply acquiring a new set of digital skills as the current narrative would have you believe, in most cases it’s about starting from scratch to build a more flexible organization that respects the needs of its talent and its clients.
It will be very hard for most to evolve. That’s why we started something completely new: the altr Collective. It’s not agency, but we think it’s the agency of the future and in the coming months, we’ll be sharing a lot more about what that means for everyone in our industry.