The Agency of the Future

By Jonathan David Lewis

You’re trying to imagine what the agency of the future looks like. You’re thinking about bringing video production in-house. Or merging a tech company with a consulting practice. Or freelancing media and emphasizing content marketing.

I would advise you to stop doing this, because you’ll just go crazy and end up right where you started: focusing on what the agency of the future looks like. As marketing leaders continue to shake their magic eight-ball and arbitrarily guess what the future holds for communications, most of us make the same, frustrating mistake: We focus on the “what.”

The truth is that what the agency of the future looks like doesn’t matter. What you do, regardless of your level of expertise, has completely and forever transformed into a commodity. Don’t believe me? Look around. Consulting firms are building content development powerhouses. Algorithms are writing articles. Enormous freelance communities are a click away. And brands are increasingly looking inward for solutions.

As a partner and strategy director of my own agency, I can tell you this much: What you do is a commodity.


Stop Selling Books

The advertising industry is experiencing an environment similar to what the retail book industry went through when Amazon first rose to prominence. It’s no longer enough for agencies to set up shop and “sell books,” because there are faster and cheaper alternatives everywhere. Either we resist our industry’s version of Amazon and dwindle, or we find a way to add value to the book shopping experience.

The agency of the future is not a formula or a set of capabilities. It can no longer hope to simply “sell books” and survive. The agency of the future is an adaptive team built around a unique purpose. The freelance economy and algorithm-driven, automated future means one thing: The modern agency can be whatever it wants to be. The collective – your network of experts – allows you to build any team, anywhere, at any time. This means a successful agency is just as likely to be filled with anthropologists and scientists as it is by copywriters and art directors. This nebulous definition of the future agency exists because our value no longer just comes from our craft, but rather our ability to form a team to solve a unique marketing problem.

The advertising industry is beginning to mirror the historical arc of the movie industry in surprising ways. Hollywood’s Golden Age, a time in which a few large studios enjoyed a near monopoly on talent, production and distribution, was crippled by a series of landmark Supreme Court decisions in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The court decisions, combined with the growing ubiquity of television, would result in the dispersion of large studios in favor of small and nimble production houses, long-term contracts were replaced with limited projects, stars became free agents instead of salaried employees, and distribution grew in complexity. Sound familiar?


You Need A Problem

The question for advertising agencies in this rapidly developing future isn’t, “What do you do?” The question is, “What problem do you solve?” Just like modern Hollywood, when expertise is abundant and barriers to entry are low, niching is the only path toward value. The new strategic imperative for marketers everywhere is to find purpose. Expert craftsmanship is still vital, but without purpose, you end up competing on price. What problem do you solve that no one else on earth can solve? What goal do you want to achieve that no one else is reaching for? What purpose do you hold that can never be matched?

The freelance economy allows marketers to quickly adapt to many needs. But it also allows your competitors to do the same, further commoditizing our industry by allowing any of us to become any of us. This brave new world of communications means the only thing that separates you from the competition is your reason for existing.


New Skills Required

Navigating these new challenges requires a different set of skills. Teambuilding now trumps in-house expertise, connection beats craft, contribution is more important than title, and nurturing your web of relationships yields more results than processes and procedures. Even headcount, a traditional measure of success in agencies, may now be a liability. Luke Taylor, CEO of Publicis DigitasLBi, recently predicted as much, saying, “Creative agencies will get smaller. The big idea doesn’t benefit from size. It’s flourishing in small cultures.”

The agency of the future is not what you think – it’s anything you want it to be. The best in the advertising industry have always fought for, elevated, and often idolized expert craftsmanship. But modern marketers must face the hard truth that expert craftsmanship is now less expensive (and more easily accessible) than ever before. The faster you can reorient your efforts away from what you do and towards what unique problem you solve, the faster you’ll become the agency of the future.

Originally published on Forbes

Jonathan David Lewis

President and author, Jonathan specializes in the spirit of the matter. Call Jonathan when problems feel ambiguous and morale is low. He’ll know what to do.

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