Why Disruptive Change is Disruptive

There were a lot of responses to my last column, looking at why agencies and clients have hit the point of irreconcilable differences. Many of those responses were in agreement. In fact, none were in outright disagreement. This surprised me. A lot of Online Spin readers are people who work for very big agencies. I can only conclude that you elected to show your dissention through your silence.

But there were many that fell in the “Yeah-but” category:

Tiffany Lyman Otten wrote,

“This, like anything, is a sign simply that agencies must evolve – again.

Jill Montaigne adds,

“Yet, our own ongoing advertiser conversations confirm that rather than walking away from their traditional agency relationships, clients desperately need and want their agencies to evolve.”

David Vawter chimes in,

“As long as there is something to sell, people will be needed to create and produce the ideas that sell it.”

Agreed. But…

All of the above comments pointed to a new trend in the marketing ecosystem – that of a network of specialists, often in the form of micro-agencies, that appear to be finding niches to hang on to in the tidal wave of change that is sweeping over our industry.

I used to head one of these agencies. Our area of specialty was in user behavior with search interfaces. We did well in this niche. So well, in fact, that we were eventually acquired by a bigger agency. Bigger agencies are always vertically integrated. As such, they offer clients the one-stop shop model. They move to that model because that is the model they know. It is the model they are programmed to create. It is an organizational form that is dictated by their P&L targets. There is no operational wiggle-room here. They simply can’t become anything else.

Tiffany, Jill and several others all used the word evolve, like it is a magical formula for survival. But evolution is like a tree. Once your branch has been determined, you have to evolve outward from that branch. You can’t suddenly leap to another branch. If you’re a chimpanzee, you can’t suddenly decide one day to evolve into a budgie. You can evolve into a new type of chimpanzee, but you’re still a chimpanzee.

What does happen in evolution, however, is that the environment changes so drastically that the tree is dramatically pruned. Some branches are lopped off, so that new branches can sprout. This is called punctuated equilibrium, and, as I’ve said before, this is what I believe we’re going through right now in marketing. Yes, as David rightly notes, “As long as there is something to sell, people will be needed to create and produce the ideas that sell it.” It’s just that the form that takes may be dramatically different that what we currently know. It could be – correction – will be a marketing ecosystem that will be dominated by new species of marketers.

We tend to equate evolution with change – but evolution is a very specific kind of change. It’s change in response to environmental pressures. And while individual species can evolve, so can entire ecosystems. In that bigger picture, some species will emerge and thrive and others will disappear. What is happening to agencies now is just a ripple effect from a much bigger environmental change – analogous to a planet size asteroid slamming into the business and marketing ecosystem that evolved over the past two centuries.

Big agencies are the result of corporate evolution in the previous ecosystem. We are quick to take them to task for being slow, or dumb, or oblivious to client needs. And perhaps, in the new ecosystem, those things are true. But those are the characteristics of the species. No agency intends to be dumb or unresponsive. It’s just an evolutionary mismatch caused by massive disruption in the environment.

These things happen. It’s actually a good thing. Joseph Schumpeter called it Creative Destruction. But, as the name implies, it’s a zero sum game. For something to be created, something has to be destroyed.

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