Why Facelifts Won’t Revitalize Agencies
The legendary agencies of our industry are looking increasingly long in the tooth. That’s because we’re entering a new economic age. The industry, especially the traditional agencies — as well as many old-school digital shops — is losing relevance quickly. The industry was built on its ability to create, track, and amplify the latest style, but the current revolution in business is one of substance.
This is a seismic shift — bigger than any challenge from “programmatic” or any other technology — and it is of people, culture (how we behave and what we value), and communications: the very fabric of our society. It affects their cultural relevance as well as their ability to attract the talent that keeps their businesses alive.
This misunderstanding of the catalytic role of the Millenials is evident in a recent Forbes article titled, Millennials, This Is Why You Haven’t Been Promoted, which takes a pat on the head approach to the shift in values embodied by this generation. That, and another article in the New York Times titled, Ad Agencies Need Young Talent. Cue the Beanbag Chairs, really inspired me to add my voice to this, published on June 2, 2016 by MediaPost Agency Daily.
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Advertising needs a hot, double shot of espresso – not to appease disengaged Millennials but to wake up agency leaders to the new world around them. Their business is losing cultural relevance – and talent – by the week, especially traditional agencies and old-school digital shops. Yet rather than matching the seismic change in personal values and worker expectations, agencies are doubling down on the same old storytelling.
That’s the message amplified by a well-traveled story ; in The New York Times earlier this spring. Industry stalwarts and trendsetters alike are rushing to make their offices hipper and younger, adding beanbags and baristas, to send the message that they’re fun.
Standing in the way is the new Zeitgeist, the Artisan Economy. A new culture where meaning determines the value of products, rather than flash and economies of scale. Led by Millennials, but not owned by them, this new consumerism eschews the newest or latest in favor of purpose-built goods and services that make the world better.
That’s an amazing outcome of the growth in all consumers’ ability to participate, and even lead, in politics, economy and society. From the grassroots success of Bernie Sanders to the craft-based movement exemplified by Etsy and home brewing, to the user-generated content universe, the public is now in charge of what our culture becomes and means in more ways than ever.
People’s expectations of work have likewise changed in ways that make agency life now seem a bit ridiculous. The ultimate job is now doing meaningful work for a purposeful company where one has a voice and shares in the success. Say goodbye to corner offices, say hello to being proud of how you are making people’s lives and the world better. In the new Zeigeist, meaning is the new Rolex.
It’s an encouraging change for us as a society, but the typical agency job couldn’t be more detached from this – as dozens of commenters on the New York Times piece pointed out. Think long hours working in the hidden depths of the advertising machine, chasing a 2% increase in sales of hot dogs or processed cheese. Those may meet basic needs, but they don’t advance deeper meaning or values. So we’re seeing talent head to lean startups and companies that care. The big agencies are trying to buy more beanbag chairs and curated dinners for those who toil late. That’s just more misplaced consumerism heightening the sense of missing purpose.
Can agencies regain cultural relevance that will attract today’s workers? If so, it will happen through fundamental change to how the agency actually operates. They must mirror the shift in society and create a flatter, empowered and democratic internal society that elevates the best in all of their people. A small fraction of the industry is already there, asking meaningful questions, seeking brands that have purpose and something to contribute, and harnessing the same model that they are competing with: empowering voices within. Those few agencies are attracting and retaining talent marvelously.
If you’ve spoken with the middle management layers of agencies lately, you’ll realize that shifting to a flat structure may be impossible without bloodletting. For all their institutional knowledge, the majority of agency managers are firefighters who were promoted as reward for epic work, not because there was any proof they’d be good managers. Typically, they conflate authority, control and power in a way that decreases the senses of mastery, individuality and relatedness that really motivate today’s workers.
Talent has a choice today. On one hand, people can work in top-down meritocracies that demand and reward compliance. Or they can work for cause-based organizations or start-ups where voice, insights and contribution are valued. As the people they need follow their own True North elsewhere, agencies need to change how they work, not how they present. Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.