As 2020 kicked off, several agency problems bubbled beneath the surface: bloated organizations, brands turning away from the agency-of-record model, in-housing, consultancies, publication consolidation, and a lack of diversity.
The agencies felt their relevance was diminishing and began making changes – not necessarily very quickly, but there were signs of moving forward.
Then the rest of 2020 happened.
When the pandemic broke out in the spring, the mission for agencies became to survive. Lots of people have lost their jobs – Forrester predicts the number will top 50,000 by the end of this year – and slight declines in sales have turned into big wins. Week after week at Adweek we had the depressingly unenviable (and frankly difficult) task of telling these stories.
Then the senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other black Americans created profound problems in the country and industry. 600 & Rising, for example, have shown a way forward for diversity, equity and inclusion. Then the Richards Group scandal – when founder Stan Richards described a Motel 6 concept as “too black” and triggered a customer exodus – took many steps back.
Where we are now
Now that we’re focused on 2021 there’s no sense of what would be called “quiet” but the agencies have a better understanding of where to go. The stores figured out how to get slim. You have a new meaning. And new opportunities, especially in e-commerce, offer green shoots amid the ashes.
“The people who adapt win,” said Michael Kassan, founder, chairman and CEO of MediaLink. “Agencies haven’t historically been very good at customizing, but they don’t have a choice. This is the proverbial need to be the mother of invention. “
Some may resent Kassan’s comment – especially smaller, nimbler agencies. However, it does suggest that agencies need to regain relevance to brands.
And here the clock is ticking.
Agencies have a lot on their plate, but 2021 looks like a year of tweaking, prioritizing, and regaining the story, where they are such a valuable resource for brands and their success. The good news is that some of the agency’s most powerful global skills, especially creativity and strategy, can help set the course. Rethinking talent and prioritizing DEI that businesses sometimes struggle with can open up greater opportunities for agencies.
Where do we go
While 2021 will be a kind of reset, agencies still have to cope with the 2020 waste and address priorities quickly. Adweek presented nine priorities to consultants who work in the agency sector every day and asked them to rank them in order of importance.
Creativity, Strategy, Talent, Leadership and Culture and DEI were among the top four. These are the lifeblood of the industry and point to a prognosis: With good strategy and creative performance, driven by strong talent in a robust culture, agencies can thrive.
Agency consultant Peter Levitan says the agency world has “lost sight of the fact that [creativity] is the main benefit. “
“Something most clients can’t do in-house is develop and deliver big, market-moving creative ideas,” he says.
Like Levitan, Greg Paull, Principal at R3, believes it is vital to return to strong creative performance, the bread and butter of agencies.
“With 500 million people blocking ads, creativity is more important than ever,” he says. “Nobody is waiting for another Nike message, but when it comes from Colin Kaepernick, it swings along and cuts through. Thinking big is more important than ever today. “