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The Agency is Dead, Long Live the Agency

The agency model has been declared dead many times over. So why is it still knocking around, and what will take its place, asks James Dunne

One of the more pointless. inane, puerile and most fun debates we can have in Adland is about the very existence of The Agency’ itself. The ‘Agency has been declared dead more times, by more thought-leaders in more publications than said thought leaders have deployed Mad Man metaphors. Not that there’s anything wrong with Mad Men. But I do reckon there’s something off in the thought leadership around this subject.

A Zombie idea?

Do not mistake me for some advertising nostalgic. The modern agency is the genetic inheritor of some very real issues. But last time I checked, the Big Six holding companies were still viable businesses. Equally, I’m not declaring ‘The Agency as a zombie idea. that simply refuses to die even when you lob its head off. That said, the leading creative shops of the world don’t fit seamlessly into that old ad-shaped box.

Still, depending on the people you’re with, the time of day and the specific public house you are in. this debate can be as wonderous as it is wasteful of your brain cells. You will find yourself tied in logic knots based on the beauty of your own bias. We have all done it. Me more than most. But having been on every side of this argument at different points over the last 20 years, what’s become painfully obvious to me is this: as long as creative, ambitious people group together for the purpose of creating ideas for commercial gain, they will become a de facto agency.

Or a studio. Or a consultancy. Or an multi-modular, virtual, geo-distributed, creative Al co-op thingy.

The point is this: when we talk about the model of The Agency’ we lose the actual, meaning behind the word agency.

A Sandbox of Ideas

When I speak with advertising grads on what they want from a career in this industry, the disconnect between and the idea of agency versus ‘The Agency’ comes into sharp relief. Agency is a world full of potential. It’s the ultimate sand box of ideas.

Then they get a job in The Agency. And right away they get mugged by reality.

This has happened to nearly every graduate I’ve worked with. It is why tech has eaten our lunch this last decade. Tech thrives on the promise of agency. Adland less so. Maybe this is changing but I would argue it’s still why a creative young gun still chooses a role in a gaming studio rather than your creative shop.

I do believe that Adland and Consultancy World (worst theme park names ever btw) are at another inflection point. In the wake of big tech troubles there’s even a level of schadenfreude slipping into the chats about talent. But it’s worth a moment of reflection.

The Digital Barbarians

More than 15 years have passed since the first wave of digital barbarians kicked comfy.

Adlanders out of their leather chairs and proceeded to wreck the gaff • and for the most part the reinvention of the biggest agencies has been deep and real. For consultancies, the pivot to creative has been a little more frenzied; panic gobbling up agencies hoping to close the gaps popping up in their expanding value chains but still never feeling full. Yet amid all this M&A and restructuring, this question – the question – continues to raise its fluffy head: why The Agency?

Some will point to the growth of in-house shops as the logical return to source. Others point to how the previously monolithic holding companies have ramped up the build your own agency solutions from the best of their global networks. Many will point to me likes of uncommon or The Brill Building as a living breathing example of an indie rebirth.

They are all totally wrong.

And they are all completely right.

We will debate this into the wee small hours. Because despite its deep flaws, coming to work to solve problems with smart, creative people under a shared banner is still the best way to make a living. That despite your
own sardonic faux cynicism, you find yourself doing the unthinkable, like starting up a week after an actual war starts.

The difference will come down to those who pull hard on the thread of redefinition. For me, agency is the mindset, not just the model.

That may be my best answer. For now.

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