Why Advertising Agencies no longer exist, and why it doesn’t matter.

I’ve been talking to a number of agencies recently about their ‘positioning’. It seems to be the topic of the moment, as agency folk begin to wrestle with another year of trying to hit their new business targets. The common theme, I notice, is that they are all very keen to be something else.

Production companies don’t want to be production companies anymore; they want to be specialists in ‘branded content’. 

PR agencies want to be social media experts (as they think ‘word of mouse’ is the new ‘word of mouth’.) Social Media agencies likewise are pitching their work as PR.

Digital agencies are, meanwhile, busy trying to eat the lunch of the advertising industry – “We’ve just hired a brilliant ex-advertising Planner” is typically the first signal of an assault on the advertising budget.

Direct Marketing agencies (and for that matter Sales Promotion agencies) have taken to talking about their ‘integrated’ capabilities. This often means they’ve rounded up all the other odds and sods from their portfolio (a bit of experiential work, perhaps an app or a promotional microsite) and repackaged this as a more modern iteration of what used to be called Below the Line. Oh, and experiential agencies now do ‘brand activation’. Confused?

Then you have the advertising agencies… if you can find one, any more. Have you noticed that the word ‘advertising’ is hardly ever heard nowadays in the halls of our former advertising agency greats? Not heard, and indeed rarely read in the pages of their websites. Advertising has been redacted. Instead we learn that these agencies are, in fact, ‘multi-disciplinary ideas companies’; or ‘media-agnostic, brand building business partners’. I kid you not.

In Al Ries and Jack Trout’s classic book “Positioning“, they say that an exercise in positioning is a search for the obvious. I agree. The thing about positioning is that far too much agency management time is expended in agonising about it. And I use the word ‘agonising’ advisedly. It’s stressful, with lots of people having an input into attempts to rationalise, or post-rationalise, why what they do is different and better versus their competitors.

The truth is, different and better are the hardest things in the world for any agency to articulate convincingly. In my experience, different and better are simply judgements that an individual new business prospect might make, in relation to their own particular requirements. So positioning needs to be framed in the context of the target audience; it’s about them, it’s not about you.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that in all of Ingenuity’s last nine years, I don’t think anyone here has ever had to field a question from a Marketing Director about an agency’s positioning. Why? Because they don’t really care. They only want to know how you can solve their problem, now. It’s about them, not about you.

My advice to Marketers is to look beyond the agency, through the positioning, and focus on the people. This is what an agency really is – a collection of talented people. No more, and no less.

If the people have the skills and experience to deliver, and the chemistry is there between your team and theirs, then bite their hands off. Despite the new labels, you may find that the skills of value to you have been acquired in advertising, direct marketing and PR agencies. Whatever an agency may say about itself, it’s what their people have to say for themselves that will make the difference.

Shaun Varga @ShaunVarga is creative director & Chairman of Ingenuity.

  • Martin Thomas

    Would you ever advise a client to forget about trying to devise and deliver a differentiated market proposition and simply argue that they employ better people? Of course not.

    What is important for clients is equally important for agencies – they have to stand for something distinctive within a market in which simply doing good work is never enough. It may be ‘agonising’ but it is important.

  • Howard Forton

    Surely if their people together can’t conceive a differentiated proposition, how could they differentiate me?

  • Pingback: On Advertising Getting Redacted — Omarrr()

  • Shaun Varga

    I think that if you follow the logic of the article, and you were a client, you would take the view that “it’s about me, not about them”. Be selfish. Don’t worry about how they position themselves. Why should you care? Care about the quality of the work they can do for you.

  • Shaun Varga

    I’d never advise abandoning hope on finding a differentiated proposition. There’s always one there, if you look hard enough. But sometimes people are part of what that is. John Lewis have used their people and their service proposition to good effect.

    I’d also say that distinctive in itself is never good enough, unless it includes a genuine benefit too.

  • Steph Smith

    Agencies can often more easily be defined by the way they present themselves to the industry they work within, than by the list of services they have on their websites or by their one line ‘positioning statements’. By that I mean that a marketer is often looking to work with an agency that has strong opinions which it is willing to share in the industry’s press or on relevant social media feeds. They can tell how engaged an agency is with its peers by the time it invests in attending industry events and then sharing learnings from those with clients and prospects. Case studies clearly showcase an agency’s basic capabilities, but the way that it manages its external profile, and how it shows its personality through proactive involvement in the industry can sometimes be the door opener from a client’s perspective.

  • http://www.blog.myhoardings.com/ Mariya Sharma

    Ad agencies are very much a part of our lives.The advertising agency is the second important component of the advertising spectrum. If the advertiser is the originator of the entire process, the advertising agency is the instrument through which advertising is conceived and planned by advertising specialists, working as a team to render advisory and creative services to advertisers in planning and preparing advertisements

  • Surinder Singh

    Well there is much disruptions offered with new business models and technology innovations, whereby agencies are being deemed redundant in some form/media of advertising especially in the online world, however in the offline world where outdoor advertising is still dependent on agencies.

    There are many examples organization bringing the outdoor advertising to consumers without the agency being the middlemen. One such example is Platomar.co, which offers low cost outdoor outdoor advertising options to the customer.