Agencies: The distance between strategy and implementation

The future of agencies

Yesterday I met up with a buddy of mine for lunch at my favorite local Thai place. He works at a large agency in town (with larger parts elsewhere in the country), and our conversation naturally turned to “the future of the agency”. I relayed my concerns about the agency model I previously blogged about, and he largely agreed.

Since that initial post, I’ve had quite a bit of online and offline conversation about what’s going on with the agency model at the moment. I’ve also seen an up tick in the amount of general online conversation as well. OMMA asks: “If we have consumer-generated content and consumer-generated media, do we still need ad agencies?” Booz Allen points out that “more marketers believe they’ll be doing more business with online media properties from a creative standpoint (52%) than they will with agencies (27%).” And why not skip the agency when the best they’re coming up with is things like this blogger outreach email I received recently:

Subject: Short and sweet…and crooked?
Hi Jake,

I’m going to keep this short and sweet, seeing as you’ll likely only be interested in the community angle of this….

I wanted to let you know about a new site that just recently launched by [Company removed]. It’s [URL removed]. Now, don’t be surprised that this site is all about Peyronie’s Disease (aka – crooked penises)…that’s just the background information. The cool thing is that [Company removed], the company that started the site, is anxious to become a part of Healthcare 2.0. To do this, they encourage men and their partners to start a conversation in the community on their site. It actually is a great, anonymous way for people with this disease to talk about it, and perhaps worthy of being mentioned in your blog.

Crooked penises aside, I hope all things at Community Guy are going well. Also, keep in touch, as I have some cool projects for other companies on the horizon that I’d like to keep you posted on.

Thanks, Jake!

Seriously.

I think that in the previous blog entry’s comments, Josh nails the real issue on the head:

The large agency business model is based on senior people making decisions and lower level people acting. Engagement in online conversations on behalf of a client requires a higher level of experience and engagement than for example calling a trade publication about an editorial calendar opportunity.

As Josh points out, most agencies have extraordinarily hierarchical structures that put higher level folks in a position of dictating, and lower level people into the role of work order fulfillment. I call it “Fighter Pilot Staffing”. The pilot of an F-14 is the rock star, with a vast array of support staff working hard doing a specific, repetitive task in order to ensure that the pilot is able to do anything within the abilities of his own training and the plane’s capabilities. The pilot is the top of the food chain, and without the pilot, the rest of the system falls apart. Sure, the pilot can’t launch his plane without countless people working to ensure the plane, weapons, air traffic control are in order, but largely the support staff is replaceable. Scaling a fighter wing is extremely difficult and costly.

Law firms may hold the key to this problem. Firm partners are charged with specific cases/clients, and work with junior associates and support staff to deliver client solutions. While there’s leadership from the partner at the top of the food chain, every project is meant to be deliver results for the client, but also to train junior staff.

In my own business, I’ve been thinking a lot about scaling issues as more and more work comes in and the space overall continues to grow. After all, how do you scale “hands-on experience”? Perhaps the answer is in these smaller working teams, lead by experience, but meant to train and educate as much as fulfill.

Today’s agencies tend to fail miserably at the later, which means they do marginally well at the former. Having worked in and with agencies of various sizes, I’ve yet to see much training taking place (in the form of formal curriculum and/or mentoring). This means the best way a junior agency employee can continue to learn and grow their career is to leave the agency. In turn this employee churn gives the agency the mistaken idea that they can’t do anything about retention, employees will simply leave within two years, so why bother investing in them?

Agencies are (or should be) in the business of delivering effective solutions to clients, rather than executing requests from clients. Because most agencies have yet to figure out how to bill properly for social projects vs. traditional, short-term campaigns, they simply don’t have the time to do things right or be smart about emerging trends for their clients. As much as we might hate to admit it, the issues we’re talking about come back to resolving the billing model. Until that’s updated for our times, we’ll continue to see quick, foolish campaign mindset applied in exactly the wrong way.

But crooked penises aside…