Like so many businesses, the agency business is a talent business from top to bottom. Nothing good happens without extraordinary efforts made by dedicated, gifted people working as one.
Agency heads used to say the agency’s “best assets,” a.k.a. the talent, walk out the door and go down the elevator each evening. Of course, these commuters almost always returned in the morning. Today, with our newfound and widespread acceptance of working from home, an agency’s best assets do not go down the elevator at night, and they do not come up the elevator in the morning. Today’s “thought workers” and free agents check in on Slack and Zoom and “handle their business.”
This is a seismic shift for an industry that’s already endured a few such shifts, of late.
This Is Change: More Power to the People
Brittaney Kiefer of Adweek spoke to Colleen DeCourcy—this year’s recipient of Cannes Lions’ prestigious lifetime achievement award, the Lion of St. Mark. DeCourcy, a partner at Wieden+Kennedy, recently chose to retire and place her focus elsewhere.
Here’s part of what she had to say to Adweek:
Adweek: Many agencies are struggling to find and retain talent. Why is this happening and what needs to change?
DeCourcy: The biggest crisis in the industry is that it’s a model built on owning a large proportion of the best talent. What I’ve seen is this transition, where freelancers used to be the people who agencies would bring in as safe, extra hands. They opted out of that agency system that kept you away from home, but they were so talented that they could sit outside and charge their rate.
During the pandemic, many more people realized they could do that. It calls into question how we have created our business model. What do you do when every agency can tap the same person as freelance? You have to be a company that values that person and shows them you can offer the best opportunities to make the work they want to make. You have to be willing to accommodate their new set of needs as workers.
I highlight this passage because it’s rich with DeCourcy’s informed point of view about where the agency business is today, and what it is. Her description of the evolving agency model more closely mirrors the Hollywood production model. In this model, the agency is the studio or the central node in a production system that outputs marketing communications. Teams assemble on a client project, work intensely as a team for a short period of time, then people go their own way until there’s another big project.
The distributed talent model has some substantial benefits. For one, it puts the right people for the job on the job. When a Hollywood studio is making a suspense or action flick versus a romantic comedy, the team’s makeup will reflect this. When an agency acts as a studio on behalf of clients, the agency puts together a curated team of specialists who are good fits for the particular client’s needs.
The distributed talent model also keeps the agency’s costs under control. When there’s a need for salaries and benefits, an office filled with Aeron chairs and leather couches, exotic wood tables, and expensive art, there’s also a need for a mountain of billable hours.
With no lobbies with soft lighting and industry awards, rows of cubicles, and a showy conference room, it’s fair to ask what is an agency now? There may be a myriad of decent answers to this existentially-tinged rhetorical question. My answer is an agency is the core team that wins the business and manages the business. The partners, plus the account director(s), production director(s), and creative director(s) that make up the core team can be safely referred to as “the agency.”
The core team can work in a small office or work from home. It matters not. What matters is that clients with business problems that communications can solve get to meet and interact with this core team, and that this core team is able to recruit all the players and specialists needed to make projects run seamlessly. It might be a fine distinction, but the agency is no longer “home” to the restless spirits who work in the business, instead, the agency is a place, physical or otherwise, where creatives and other specialists turn for work that fits their schedules and “new set of needs.”
DeCourcy also talks about offering people “the best opportunities to make the work they want to make.” I do wonder if the work they want to make is the work that clients need to capture attention and drive purchase intent. I think yes, and that it’s just another way of saying that most talented people want to make great work, and are therefore attracted to the opportunities where they can truly shine, and walk away from the experience better for the time and energy invested.