Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Adapt or Die! Pt. 2: Agency Hubris

[image taken from Amalgamated's website...]

A new colleague of mine, Ana Andjelic, a freelance strategist and Ph.D. Laureate in Digital Branding, wrote a really controversial (and what I considered to be thoughtful) piece this week in AdAge on Why Digital Agencies Aren't Ready to Lead. The article raised some serious questions about how agencies deal with client needs, and the ensuing thread pointed to the fact that the holes in the agency model are more glaringly apparent than ever before. Particularly interesting was that many of the respondents chose to attack Ana personally, mostly under the pretense that they knew more than her given their agency backgrounds.

Here was my initial response:

I can't say that I share the same negative sentiment of others in this thread regarding your post - I think you raise some great points, but I would add that perhaps these issues are systemic across all agencies within the landscape.

Particular to 'digital', I think Sapient has done an excellent job of adopting and implementing a model that focuses on business solutions for clients, and much of this is predicated on a strong fundamental understanding of brand marketing functions, as well as operational dynamics that can affect a company's ability to reach audiences and drive sales. Basically, Sapient acts as a management consulting outfit that has the ability to translate business needs into multi-disciplinary marketing functions, all of which are data-driven and mostly built on ideas that are agnostic as well as scalable.

In general, it seems that 'digital' agencies need to consider (among many other things) three primary drivers:

- The development and deployment of 'adaptive' versus 'disruptive' technologies; as Nick Law puts it, the difference between 'fitting in' and trying to 'break through'.

- How these technologies become a part of business offerings for the longer term, and in a bigger context, how they provide cultural value.

- How experiences are no longer restricted to 'offline' or 'online' functions, but rather ideas that can live anywhere and indefinitely (think of utility in this sense).

By the time I had posted my comment (it was the tenth), I went back later to discover that 40 more comments were made in the thread, most of which were aimed at how 'wrong' Ana was, and how unqualified she was to author the post. AdAge editor Jonah Bloom even got into the mix, supporting the publication's decision to feature her insights.

Here was my second response:

Seriously, folks, Jonah takes a solid stance -- the point of these posts is to create a discourse, as well as enable all of us to weed out fact from fiction.

Ana may not be right; in fact, many of her points may prove to be wrong once put out to pasture, but isn't this a good thing? Put it this way, would you rather have an article talk at you, or, would you rather have one light a fire under your ass and get you to speak out? (like you have here...)

On the topic of 'agency hubris', some of you, honestly, need to step down from your ivory tower. I work with plenty of people who came out of big agency environments and they'll tell you that after spending years within the ranks and in the trenches, they have relatively little to show for it. I personally stayed on the independent side, and eventually went out on my own, so that I could actually create and build stuff and not be encumbered by some of the bullsh-- being slung around in this thread.

What makes you an 'expert' on something like digital (which is a term for debate in its own right) isn't so much where you come from, where you sit, or how many 'campaigns' you've done, but what you are doing RIGHT NOW.

The harsh reality of this digital landscape is that you either adapt or you die, it's that simple... and ultimately the point of Ana's post.

In fairness to the pundits of the article and within Ana's thread, a gentleman with the alias of "copyboy1" brought these questions to harsh light:

Let's try this Ms. Andjelic. Please explain:

- How R/GA fits into your theory of digital agencies not being ready to lead.
- How a "traditional" Goodby agency "ends up doing the same thing over and over again."
- How agencies like Droga5 can produce great online and offline work consistently.
- How a traditional agency like Crispin is left "with little time to experiment" in the online space.
- How smaller digital shops like Attik can't handle branding and offline work.
- Why Marc Lucas, the ECD at Razorfish, is disputing your claims about the "Laundry Fairy" campaign directly on your Twitter account.

Bottom line: opinions are just the things we need to create a discourse around why and how the current agency model doesn't work, and the steps we can take to improve the industry.

What do you think?


Charlie Quirk said...

I agree G, no one can comment definitively on an issue as vague as one person's opinion. The fact that so many of those commenters took so much pleasure in knocking the author was disheartening. Criticism like that says more about the mental state of the criticizer than the criticizee.

Like our political discourse, we should aspire to let the issues be the issue and not insist on spouting tied soundbites because it let's us feel better about ourselves.

The social web, and it's myriad unwritten rules should add another one to the list. Be civilized, polite and take issue with opinions, not individuals.

Gunther Sonnenfeld said...

Well said, Charlie.

I think that will continue to survive, and thrive, are those who can adapt to consumer demand and market need states, not constrictive protocols and staid thinking.

Social, in its own right, should permeate all forms of outreach, not just be regarded as a disparate or separate channel or tactic.