Death of the Ad Agency?

A passing browse of any media or marketing magazines might make you think that ad agencies are in some kind of death spiral. Are we though? For an industry that is supposedly dead, there sure are a lot of us still out there. Rigor adtis, maybe. Apparently, the ad agency is going the way of the dinosaur… which is a far more apt metaphor for what is going on in the media industry landscape than the mags would believe. The dinosaurs as a species, after all, didn’t really go extinct. You still see them today: your average bin chicken hustling for scraps descended from theropods, which included famous dino species like T-Rex. Dinosaurs didn’t technically die out. Their descendants are all around us. Hell, you probably ate some of them for lunch.

The Phantom Leap

Scientists have come up with various theories to explain the jump from velociraptor to quail, from the “hopeful monsters” concept, that species formed by large-scale mutations and not by gradual natural selection, to seamless transition: where bird features evolved one by one over time. As lovers of Jurassic Park, we’re still a little disappointed that it turns out dinosaurs probably had feathers. Not that it’s stopped the sequels from having lizard-like dinos, which shows you: there’s nothing quite like the power of branding, even if the product eventually turns out to be incorrect.

Similarly, ad and creative agencies have evolved over time. From the days of Letrasets to inDesign, from analog to digital. The movement towards a blurred line between ‘agency’ and ‘consultancy’ is just the latest step. As brands and consumers begin to expect more from agencies across different touchpoints, many agencies have tried to maneuver to meet demand. And, of course, traditionally non-advertising agencies have also evolved. Take a certain Big 3 accounting firm, for example, which has branched out with a Digital arm and a Consulting arm, both of which can and do bring in clients that are just as profitable as its traditional auditing arm. In 2014, Deloitte Digital brought in $1.5 billion in revenue. Other firms like Accenture have followed suit, and they’ve been buying up creative agencies to boot.

The creative industry has always been highly competitive. Now that other players from other industries have evolved to encroach into the share of the pie, what must an ad agency do? Well, again we can look back at nature. Predator/prey co-evolution has often been an arms race of adaptation. Either ad agencies evolve, to provide better ROI for our client with an eye on emergent technologies and strategy, on top of quality creative, or we’ll get eaten. Almost literally, given the fate of some smaller agencies to date.

Darwin and the Ad Agency

Starship hasn’t been a pure ad agency for a while: we’ve always held a finger to the wind. We do ads, yes. Also marketing, branding, social media, business plans, digital strategy… we even have a specialist retail projects arm that looks at retail-specific technology and strategy. We’ve long understood that diversifying is the way to go. Especially as it’s become easier and easier for clients to be tempted to do things in-house. Platforms like Facebook make it extremely easy to create and run ads: you just need to set up a free account. Our focus is not just on making good creative but creating good value. What can we do for a client that a client can’t? In the process, like the dinosaurs of old, it’s been a gradual transition, as we add more and more to our skillsets. Sometimes it can be frustrating. But it can be rewarding too. We’re here for our clients, after all. And while their core needs may remain the same, the world is changing.

Power of Flight

Pure creative agencies and ad shops out there still exist, of course. And they’d probably exist for a while. A brief browse of recent science fiction films (Altered Carbon, Bladerunner 2049 etc) all indicate that advertising is alive, well, and (eyeroll) still full of scantily dressed women in the future. Even as we shed old technologies, we’ll embrace the new. And more importantly, we shed old ways of thinking for the better. The new wave of creatives coming to join agencies are interested in ethical design, in human-centred technology, in inclusivity. We’ve found ways to slowly co-exist with hybrid consultanties–either by carving out niches for ourselves, or becoming somewhat more hybrid in our own way. Technological development has been accelerating on an exponential curve: it’s hard to imagine now, but when I was growing up three decades ago, the internet wasn’t yet widespread and available. It’s inevitable that change happens. It’s not always an easy process, but it can be an exhilarating one. You learn how to fly or go the way of the dodo. But once you’re up in the air, it’s worth it. The view from up here is great.

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