What is an Agency’s Role?

First published January 26, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I was talking to someone about what  role a digital agency would play in the future. We went down all the usual paths and came up with the usual answers, but afterward the question still lingered. What is our role in the future? I’m reasonably certain it won’t be the same as our role in the past.

In cases like this, I sometimes find it helpful to do a little linguistic excavation. I’m constantly surprised by how concise and accurate the labels we choose are, if we spend the time to explore their roots and unearth their true meaning.

What then is an “agency”? Well, agency is simply the capacity of an agent to act. It’s the sphere of “action” that surrounds an agent. So, we have to dig a little deeper. What is an “agent”? An agent is one who acts for another, by authority from them.  It seems simple, but is there a fundamental concept here that has gotten fuzzy with time?

In the early history of advertising, agencies were very much aligned with this definition, I think. They carried out the acts of advertising — including creation of the messages, production and placement — at their clients’ behest. The best agencies also contributed by helping clients uncover and communicate core brand values that resonated with an audience.

It was here that the role of the agency started to shift. It had to do with the concept of brand ownership. Somewhere along the line, agents began to believe they owned the brand. And clients seemed willing to abdicate this power to their agents. One agency talks about “360 degree brand stewardship.” It sounds nice, warm and fuzzy, but let’s cut the fat away and get to the bone of this phrase. What does that mean, really?

To “steward” a brand means to care for it and improve it over time. Again, that sounds like a good thing. But I fear that it shifts a fundamental duty into the wrong hands. I believe that “caring” implies ownership, and it can leave a brand in a precarious purgatory, caught between the company itself and its agency. In the days when brands were built largely around media exposure, perhaps it made sense for the fate of that brand to live with the agency. But that’s no longer the case. As Jakob Nielsen has said on at least one occasion, now “brands are built by experience, not exposure.” And the brand experience has to live with the company whose DNA defines the brand. By necessity, they have to be the stewards of their own brand, because so much of what makes that brand lives beyond the reach of an agency.

So if the original definition of an agency is passé, and the role of stewardship has to live with the company, what then do we become? I can hear echoes of “strategic partners” out there as I write. But to me that term has had its essential meaning squeezed out by overuse. I don’t think it captures the essence of what a digital agency should be. “Strategic partners” as a label is like a blanket, covering everything but defining nothing.

When I look at our best relationships with clients, there are three other terms I would use: “catalyst,”  “accelerator” and “guide.”

As a catalyst, we’re there to trigger change, to set off a chain reaction that has the potential to transform an organization.  We can do this by giving clients a vision of what’s possible. As an accelerator, we’re there to remove the roadblocks preventing the transformation. Finally, as a guide, we’re there to provide direction, helping clients a navigate the troubled waters of digital transformation and giving them some idea of what to expect.

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