Since I started in the agency business back in 1776, I've been aware of a subtle but undeniable tension between clients and agencies over who would control the culture of advertising.
Because the agencies make the advertising, they feel they should control the ethos. Because the clients pay for the advertising, they feel they should control it. Nobody ever comes out and actually says these things, but the strain below the surface has always been pretty obvious to anyone who wanted to see it.
I've always felt it was a healthy tension. The industry needs both the imagination of the agencies and the real-world pragmatism of the clients. The pendulum is never at rest and it is always swinging back and forth giving a little more or a little less influence to each party. For the most part, however, it has remained within a range in which each party has had a reasonable share of power in determining what the ad industry is, and what it isn't.
I am now starting to feel that the competition is coming to an end and that the clients have won. There are three factors that make me feel this way.
The first is size. Size affects culture. Large entities tend to behave differently from small ones. As agencies have grown to global proportions to match the needs of global clients, agency cultures have undeniably changed to resemble the cultures of the clients. I don't think this has been done consciously. I think it's just a by-product of size.
The tangible manifestations of this are the development of internal hierarchies, the compartmentalization of functions, and the inflation of titles (is there anyone left who isn't a C-Something-O?) Because the intangible manifestations are less, um, tangible, they are harder to describe. But anyone who's spent some time in the agency world will, I believe, agree that internal agency behaviors and attitudes have a different feel in recent years.
The second factor is people. With the exception of the creative department, it would be hard these days to pick agency people out of an agency-client line-up. They look, talk and act the same. This is not a criticism of either side, it's just an observation.
As for the creative people, they still have bad haircuts and unnecessarily expensive eye wear, but I've been reading lately that we are losing some of our best and brightest to, among other things, the lure of new media. This is alarming. A while ago, in a past post entitled Crisis of Advertising, I wrote something like this...
Put yourself in the place of a young, talented person. You can work for a big, clumsy ad agency that is toiling for huge corporations. You'll have dozens of meddlers sticking their sweaty fingers into everything you do. Or you can work for yourself, or a smaller entity, where you don't just use your imagination to sell things, you use it to actually create things.Our clients may think they need us for our dashboards and our analytics, but the only thing they really need us for is creativity. If we can't deliver that, we may as well close up shop.
The third factor is focus. Agencies seem not as singularly focused on the advertising part of the advertising business as they once were. Each day there seem to be new priorities and different disciplines that closely mirror client-side functions. This has not been helped by the obsession with technology and data.
Agency leaders may be crazy, but they're not stupid. In a time of enormous change and uncertainty, they can see what the winners look like and what the losers look like. The winners look more and more like their clients. The losers look more and more like ad agencies.
In logic, there is something called the fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition occurs when it is mistakenly assumed that what is good for the individual is good for the group. For example, it is good for the individual to save his paycheck. But if everyone saved their paychecks, our economy would collapse.
It is probably good for the survival of each individual agency if it yields to the pressure to mirror the values and behaviors of its clients.
However, it is terrible for the industry.