The Decline of the Agency and Rise of the Client: Part 2

In Part 1 yesterday, I explored how the empowerment of the client, the negative impact of overheads on agency fees, and the forced distintermediation of agencies from their clients, have contributed to a seismic shift in fortunes and status. In this second of a two-part blog on the decline of the agency and the rise of the client, I examine the evolution of the agency-client relationship, the impact of media fragmentation, and the paucity of creativity.

The Changing Agency-Client Relationship

Picture of Sacha Baron Cohen as The Dictator

Some clients act as dictators in the client-agency relationship

In the past decade, the nature of the agency-client relationship has changed. Alun Shooter describes how one client-side friend runs his relationship with his agency as if it were a dictatorship. From my experience in many agencies, I can empathise with this. But Shooter argues that with no mutual respect or close relationship you won’t “do great things together”. Looking back to the 1990s, I remember having a close, working relationships with all my clients. But in the 2000s, I definitely noticed a distancing in these relationships, perhaps down to the fact that these increasingly empowered clients were busier, dealing with a range of suppliers directly, were more firmly in the driving seat and less dependent on us, the agency. But I have a sneaking feeling that the new empowerment led to a tendency to withhold information from us. There was less trust in the relationship. For instance, how many clients give their agency direct access to their website analytics? As a result, the control and knowledge increasingly rests with the marketer.

The Impact of Media Fragmentation

Media fragmentation has meant that the once pure-play advertising, direct marketing or sales promotion agencies have had to evolve to survive. By a process of mergers, buy-outs and recruiting new skills, some older agencies have sought to offer services in all the new media. Many end up being ‘jacks of all trades’ and masters of none. The newer agencies that cut their teeth in the more modern technologies, such as social media, web builds and SEO, have had the advantage because the emphasis – digital – is increasingly in their favour. But hasn’t this meant that these one or two-trick ponies merely offer what they can, rather than what they should when a client comes to them with a communications brief? To cap it all, the intense competition between all these agencies further enables clients to play the market and depress remuneration levels.

The Decline of Creativity

Cartoon of a boss telling an employee to go back to his cubicle and 'think outside the box'.This brings us full circle to the crux of the matter – creativity. In his article “A short lesson in perspective”, the late Linds Redding talked about the ‘overnight test’ whereby he and his creative partner would return after a productive, previous day of ideas and commit to the trash can many of the ideas that only the day before seemed really good. This was their ‘human powered bullshit filter’. The result was that only really good ideas survived to the next stage. But Linds bemoaned the fast pace of life that the age of digital introduced to the creative process. There was no longer an ‘overnight test’ – as soon as an idea was generated it was relayed to the client by a ‘red-faced’ account manager. So he asked, “have you ever tried to have an idea. Any idea at all, with a gun to your head? This is the daily reality for the creative drone”. He also pointed out that that this machine-gun fire way of working made the creative department more conservative in their ideas, avoiding risk-taking.

The result is a dissatisfied client. Alun Shooter describes how he is often approached by clients who are tired of their existing agency, revealing that the ‘killer blow’ in the relationship comes when the client has to art direct their agency, “pushing them to be more creative”. I wonder whether also if the young creatives of today are inferior to those of yesterday… could a factor be simply because so much creativity is drawn or written using a mouse and keyboard instead of a pencil and pen, the traditional tools of creation? In short, is digitisation making the creative person less creative? Or is today’s creative person a different animal from the one of the 70s and 80s? Meerkats aside, what memorable ads of today can you think of that could challenge the great ad campaigns of the Thatcher years? It is no coincidence that Private Eye has a regular column called Ad nauseam where it identifies the latest ads that have ripped off ideas from movies and TV shows.

Outstanding Ideas

Striking picture of a child holding his brightly-coloured painted hands up to the camera.

Linds Redding maintained that “the trick to being truly creative… is to be completely unselfconscious. To resist the urge to self-censor. To not-give-a-shit what anybody thinks. That’s why children are so good at it”.  I love that quote so much that I put it in our agency credentials because it sums up for me what creativity is. At MCS, creativity is central to our offering to clients. That is how we add value and enable our clients to stand out from their competitors. Without a great idea behind it, a campaign will be limited in its effectiveness. Our model enables our creatives to have that ‘overnight test’ to ensure only good ideas progress. There are no ‘creative drones’ or ‘red-faced  account managers’, just people with a passion for brands and all things marketing, enabled via the world-wide web.

As well as administrator of New River Marketing, Richard Fullerton is Business Partner at MCS, an integrated marketing agency.

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