The following post is by Josie Brown and quite possibly the first of a series by guest writers. Josie is a good friend of mine and having previously worked at Iris, McCann, RKCR Y&R I thought it would great to see her point of view on the blog as we often find ourselves debating the whole ‘future of the agency’ topic. You can follow Josie on Twitter here @josiedbrown. Discussion welcome.
I remember when I persuaded my first boss to hire me. Back then, at a small agency, the brainstorming was done over a few nights with a bottle of wine, the timings had some breathing space and the clients didn’t expect an answer until the end of the day. Life was ‘fast’, we were nimble and our clients were still on broadband. That was eleven years ago and agencies have changed you’ve probably heard the same rumors I have “the agency model is done for”; agencies are sluggish and redundant and their ideas don’t seem to be that big or new by the time they go live. Tech companies, start-ups and web-entrepreneurs are the real leaders of the pack and attracting the top talent whilst creative agencies are finding it hard to be the cultural innovators they once were.
But why? It’s an exhilarating time in the creative industries, every OS update, new device or social network brings more opportunities for agencies; technology has thrown open the creative director’s door and evened out the playing field. These days, graduates are skilled up and hard-wired to troubleshoot in alternative ways, the ability of the existing agency guard to continuously retrain and keep up with what’s cutting edge is a tough task. When it comes to being at the helm for the next big thing, today’s new talent has huge role to play. They don’t remember their first email address or mobiles and they don’t recall their family’s first PC – these grads have innovation built in. They inherently turn to it, they aren’t intimidated by it and they definitely do not consider there to be a difference in new media to mass media.
The new talent out there is truly ‘media agnostic’ and more entrepreneurial than ever but the concern is that this new big-idea-innovating breed is being attracted to startups and tech companies because the boardroom is seen as the creative killer and agency leaders are shying away from their role as incubators. Too often it is expected that innovative ideas in an agency should be formed around an investor – aka a paying client. The only difference is ‘the client’ unlike venture capitalists is risk adverse; you simply can’t rely on clients to help innovate. By the time they think they know what they want and how to ‘measure it’ its yesterday’s dinner. The same goes with plenty of agency leaders – being accountable for profit, and people’s jobs means investing in innovative ideas can be shoved to the wayside.
I get it. There are overheads to be paid. But that doesn’t keep an agency from evolving and coming up with its own way to optimize, inspire, and contribute to society (or just have some fun). Putting aside funding for internal projects, hackathons and ownable IP with specific incentive to pitch and bid for investment is something some agencies are now putting into practice. It’s a genuine way to keep new innovative talent coming in the door, and an even better way to show that an employer has faith in their people’s perspectives and ideas.
That’s a good start, but why would a first class graduate with a desire to innovate and create want to go to a creative agency over a tech company or a start up? It’s a hard question to tackle without thinking about what needs to change in the current agency model – so, there’s no smoke without fire…
Once upon a time, a grad went into an agency, did an internship in a few of the ‘departments’ found a place they liked and stayed put. The creatives, the strategists, the suits, the producers were all respectfully divided and the levels of seniority further sectioned the team; the access to decision makers were plotted out so there was no mistaking where the grads sat (in the corner fretting over who ordered the double-shot chai latte). The path to greatness within an agency had to take certain tenure and it was all client-centric.
Top talent these days are offering more than their weight in profitable skill, and their native understanding of technology means they are already ahead of the game. They are intuitively exposed to the information age, how to navigate it and subsequently trained to ideate within it. This is not just a sea change it is a fundamental difference in learning and communication at its foundation. And, what’s even better is, this new breed doesn’t pay any reverence to the demarcated areas of creative, strategy and business management. For them, it’s one in the same. This isn’t just their mindset, this is the way they discover and learn, and it’s a huge asset for agencies, start-ups and the industry at large.
Getting rid of the old silos of days gone by is something plenty of people want to see. The hindering life a project takes through departments in an agency needs to be addressed and the model of working repurposed so it is relevant to the new talent coming into the industry. If top graduates from design schools think in vocabularies of innovative strategy for communication and cannot (and will not) be neatly placed in either ‘planning’, ‘creative’ or ‘production’ but want in, then the agency should adjust itself to accommodate. Agencies need to ditch the old team formulas, roles and self-important titles of yesteryear.
Agency leaders need to curate teams for projects.
Teams should be carefully curated, not only from core ability but perspectives, intelligence, and technical skillset from across a spectrum of the new and traditional. Teams should be smartly fused together in a way that empowers and inspires talent who may see a future for themselves at a creative agency. Imagine being on a team as a ‘human systems integration’ graduate and working intimately with a great filmmaker and a loopy number cruncher to create a first in kind interactive mobile web info-graphic series. Or empowering the weekend DJ who mans the IT desk, to propose a music idea he’s had under his belt for the last six months that might revolutionize the way producers engage with urban poets and lyricists. It’s the art of bringing people together for a product that takes on any form (the physical, digital, hyper-real, analogue, mobile, paper, experiential, cinematic, interactive…) that an agency can do better than any start-up or tech company.
Irrespective of revenue, population and egos agencies need to employ a flatter more integrated model for its talent and leaders to connect. In this high tech, high-speed innovative age where the speed of cultural consumption (not the speed of campaign) trumps all, no one has time to waste on agency politics and corporate ladders. Learning from one another should be paramount to the agency.
It is the assembly of diverse yet brilliant minds for an evolving product and the promise to nurture and foster great ideas that will keep agencies an inspired choice for the talent out there. Agencies aren’t just a place where clients enlist producers, creatives and businessmen. Agencies are a place where talented minds from all kinds of backgrounds integrate and develop together, with the financial support and investment from investors (client or otherwise) to go on to great things. My hope for agency leaders responsible for the people they employ is that they invest money and support on ideas that are dreamt up sans-client and ultimately curate teams that openly redefine the agency keep it an evolving and living model that stays relevant and meaningful for decades to come.