Why Agencies Are More Relevant, and Irrelevant, Than Ever Before

By Jonathan David Lewis

Many of us remember a time when getting in the car, driving to Blockbuster, spending an hour perusing video options, renting a movie, driving home, watching the movie, and then going back to the store to return the video, was actually a desirable experience. Blockbuster facilitated an important human need: entertainment.

Now, Blockbuster is a drifting memory and the concept of driving to a store filled with physical copies of movies isn’t just antiquated, it’s archaic. Blockbuster’s problem wasn’t that entertainment had lost its value; in fact, the reality was quite the opposite. People were clamoring for even more immersive and self-directed entertainment experiences. The iconic home video chain’s challenge was that entertainment was so valuable that people wanted a “Blockbuster” in their own living rooms.

Much like video rental stores of yesteryear, the value that advertising agencies provide is more relevant than ever. So relevant, in fact, that brands are looking for ways to get more of the culturally relevant, adaptive thinking that agencies traditionally provide.

The world is moving so fast, disruption is occurring so frequently, and clarity and simplicity are so scarce that clients are feeling the pressure to bring agencies “into their living room” and be just as innovative, creative and flexible as their advertising colleagues of the last 50 years.

The market isn’t moving away from advertising agencies; the market is moving toward them. Agencies had it right all along. They have always been built to absorb change, quickly mobilize teams of experts, and disrupt themselves and their clients’ industries. The agency model is the future for business, and that’s why we’re losing our value. Not because agencies are less necessary, but because we’re less unique.

When what you do is ubiquitous, then why you exist sets you apart.

The Age Of Disruption

During the last century, business success was formerly based on concepts that arose from the industrial age – concepts like size, scale and efficiency. Creativity and innovation were a less frequent need because disruption happened much slower and irregularly. The industrial age principles for success worked because we could generally rely on a level of certainty in our industries and economy. When the world is stable, efficiency, scale and strength often provide an advantage.

But in today’s age of disruption, where change is the norm and old advantages like size and longevity can now be vulnerabilities, companies are recognizing that they must adopt agency core competencies like adaptation and innovation. Where uncertainty is on the rise, liquidity is a competitive advantage.

Agencies have always been a model for success in uncertainty because they are built for agility and flexibility. Agencies are modular and adept at adding and subtracting functions as needed. We have fostered a freelance community for many years. We are creative problem solvers. We are lovers of craft, understand the need for systems design, and are masters at adaptation. In short, the agency model is exactly what businesses must “bring into their living room” in order to succeed in an uncertain future.

This creates new challenges for clients and advertising agencies alike. Clients must learn how to disrupt themselves, eschew fundamental assumptions of success for wildly new concepts, and learn how to navigate change instead of fighting it.

Agencies must do exactly what they’ve prescribed to clients for decades: find differentiating purpose. When what you do is ubiquitous, then why you exist sets you apart. The agencies that articulate why they exist and build an adaptive team to fulfill their purpose will thrive in a future where wild change is the norm.

The age of disruption will see agencies and clients adopting structures of every stripe, from Apple-like approaches where most marketing is handled in-house, to mixed models where agencies fill specific roles and partner more closely with in-house teams. We will even continue to see client approaches that outsource most marketing needs. The endless variety in our economy will require endless creativity in our solutions. But one thing will remain: The connectedness, flexibility, and agility inherent in the agency model will underline it all.

Much like Blockbuster, agencies find themselves in the strange position of being more relevant, and irrelevant, than ever before. If you’re an agency owner wringing your hands about what you must become to remain relevant, don’t run away from what you are; embrace it, then focus on purpose. If you’re a client, get ready to re-learn everything you think you know about business success and adopt a radically new approach to navigating change.

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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