Big Agencies in the 21st Century
The state of creative agencies is an interesting one as we move further into the 21st Century. Certainly there are interesting examples along the lines of the juggernaut ad agencies , who have had some smashing successes, but also their share of colossal missteps . For the multinational company with hundreds of millions to spend on advertising, the Big Agencies of the world will likely always offer incredibly expensive advertising campaigns that will either make them hundreds of millions or cost them hundreds of millions. But is the very advertising corporate model itself something that is a relic of another era?
The dot.com Bust and Birth of the Boutique Agency
Consider what happened before the dot.com bust of 2001: hundreds of creative agencies were born, many offering little more than the most dazzling technology, cut off from sensible marketing or sensible expectations. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of them have vanished. In their dust many companies had far fewer choices hiring a creative agency until a few years ago, when the number of advertising and marketing agencies began to grow once again. The “Boutique Agency” is the newest phenomena, a supposedly small, super-versatile agency that can offer the best of the best without the red tape and astronomical price tags of the big agencies.
The Challenge with Boutique Agencies
Boutique agencies do indeed offer greatly reduced costs compared to large, traditional agencies, which tend to have huge overhead and huge billable hours. The boutique agency offers their clients many tempting things: greater attention, greater customization, more feedback in the creative process, less overall expense, and greater control over the final product. Many companies hire these smaller firms to tackle major branding or advertising needs, only to find that most of these boutique agencies come with a catch.
The challenge is that, more often than not, a boutique agency is simply one or two designers who understand how to design and create a brand, but have no idea how to market it or convert the brand into actual sales. They create sometimes very fine creative work, only to struggle to convert it into tangle, bottom-line results. In short, a boutique agency’s greatest asset is also its greatest weakness: the small size and limited experience of the staff means that solid marketing principles, such as tracking the results of a campaign to ensure a proper return on investment, are not properly understood.
Another challenge is that sometimes new technologies are embraced while ignoring powerful, traditional ones. This means that many of the companies that hire boutique agencies, while saving money in the short run, end up wasting it in the long run because their new websites and branding materials are not hooked into larger marketing goals, for a campaign that integrates the best of New Media with traditional advertising.
A New Agency, a New Model for the 21st Century
The solution isn’t to go back to the way things were, of course. The answer lays in a combination of these two models — the old, staff-heavy creative agency, and the new, highly flexibly, freelance-staffed boutique agency. The successful agency of the 21st Century needs to do some very important things, and to take the best of each model while losing the shortcomings:
- Be adaptable: As the economy cools and heats up, a fixed staff and expensive office can create the need for high billable hours, something that is seldom in the best interest of clients. Worse, firing staff to keep a company afloat often means severely comprising the integrity of the very agency itself, so it can no longer deliver the very things it is best at delivering. Having a minimal “root” staff in place means a company can grow and shrink with the times via freelancers, and offer solutions to their clients that are the best for the client.
- Be Forward-Looking but Responsible: technologies are always growing and changing, and any agency needs to be hiring young, creative professionals who have their finger on the pulse of the next upcoming thing. But as the dot.com bust proved, this isn’t enough: these technologies must still be folded into traditional advertising models proven to work, and one can never get away from keeping a hard eye on the bottom line.
- Have the Very Best Staff without the Overhead: traditional agencies hire seasoned professionals, but their salaries are the single greatest drag on their bottom line. Worse, these seasoned professionals may propose overly complicated solutions to marketing challenges to justify their very expertise. The successful 21st Century agency will have key executives to maintain quality and hold a proper large perspective, but will hire freelancers to execute labor-intensive work.
- Keep the Important Things Internal: It’s not a good idea to outsource your core strengths. What will set apart the successful 21st Century agency is having an incredible core team, one that knows how to convert creative work into bottom-line results, but one that is small enough to coast through leaner times. This means having the very best marketing minds, creative directors, senior-level creatives, and hiring — and successfully managing — any additional team members that may need to be hired to meet a project’s deliverables.
- Assemble Teams, Not Groups: hiring the right team for the right job is critical to a project’s success. The successful agency will match the right team with the right client to ensure there is creative, marketing, and overall goal symmetry. A highly creative designer, for instance, might not be necessary for a simply rebrand of a local state government site. Or hiring a Web writer to create offline content can create challenges in tone, voice, and length.
- Honor the Client, Always: Large agencies sometimes run roughshod over their clients, assuming they know better. And their red tape and bureaucracy can make getting answers an incredibly frustrating experience. The successful 21st Century agency knows two simple truths: the client knows their business better then we ever will, so we need to listen carefully. We know our business better than our clients, so it’s up to use to share our strengths and insights in a way they will understand.