The Advertising Agency Is Dead. Long Live the Advertising Agency.

By Colin Gray

The great constant of advertising is change, and over the last couple of decades we’ve seen some of the fastest and most momentous shifts since the advent of television. The chronological gap between the now hilariously outdated Space Jam website (conveniently archived here) and Coca-Cola’s Real Magic campaign utilizing AI technology to invite people to create art for their brand (not to mention their sophisticated AR packaging is incredibly tiny. Without a doubt, within a few months of publishing this, even AR will be waning in relevance.

The industry changes so quickly, in fact, that some agencies risk ossification and confusion by renaming themselves after new methods and technologies in a gambit to establish relevance and expertise. The bold move of proclaiming your company a digital agency may have seemed like a brilliant move not that long ago, but now may translate to being relegated to doing web banner ads and social media management while the agency of record takes on the big fun stuff in a campaign.

While "advertising agency" is no longer the most apt term for the agency/client relationship, "you risk looking silly if you’ve come up with a ten-word definition of what you do," says Jonathan David Lewis, President of McKee Wallwork.

Lewis indicates that the more worthwhile approach may be to leave the description alone and instead focus on positioning, and give clients a clear idea of how your agency differs from others. Our agency specializes in helping stalled, stuck, and stale businesses, and our energetic pursuit of new methods, technologies and disciplines is designed to fuel that specialty rather than replace it.

Ultimately, if the agency’s positioning hasn’t changed, then inventing a new category descriptor doesn’t make much sense. Clients need to know why they should hire you, and if you go around calling yourself "digital insurrectionists" or "change agents" or whatever the hot flavor of the week is, you might alienate the very people who you hope to work for.

(Also, and not naming names, proclaiming that your company isn’t an ad agency and that your team members aren’t ad people is obnoxious. Do you design medical instruments? Are you day traders? Do you sell burritos? For what it’s worth, perennial heavy hitters Wieden+Kennedy and Droga5 just go ahead and call themselves advertising agencies. Easy peasy.)

At its core, our approach here is to “Discover the DNA of a brand and learn how to grow life from that DNA into whatever form we need to. That could be architecture, movies, web banners, whatever we need,” Dave Ortega, our Executive Creative Director, says. That dive into a company’s DNA leads down many avenues, but all toward the same purpose.

While our leadership team considered rechristening McKee Wallwork an “innovation company,” that turns out to muddy the waters, which is a big no-no for any company that specializes in communication. Actually, the most accurate description for ours and other modern agencies might be “problem solvers,” but as long as branding is a primary function, “ad agency” or “marketing agency” are still the clearest descriptors.

(Imagine telling KFC that your agency specializes in solving problems. In turn, they tell you they are having a hell of a time with their new fryer units, ten percent of which have a faulty temperature gauge. You put your team through eight years of engineering school. Two years in, the account goes into review. Hilarity ensues. Moral: Let ’em know that you solve brand problems.)

Tactics will always shift, but advertising can be neatly summed up as connecting brands to people. Even if tactics transform so much that nothing a future agency creates can be called an “ad,” if those creations are still intended to connect brands to people, it is still, broadly speaking, an advertising agency.

(Imagine it’s the year 2075. Your mind has been uploaded to the cloud. There’s a hardware hiccup and the memory of your first digital dog disappears. Another data company promises that this sort of nonsense won’t happen on their watch. It will be an ad agency that articulates this promise in a way that gets your attention. Moral: As long as companies exist, there will be brands; as long as brands exist, they will need help with branding.)

If an agency has a strong sense of their own identity, that’s what matters, and there are a myriad of ways to articulate that to clients, none of which require confusing name changes or long chains of adjectives and qualifiers. In the end, we choose to embrace the name “advertising agency.” After all, it makes more time for the hard work of helping our clients’ companies thrive.

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