When was it the business of a Marketing agency to do anything but service the needs of the brands it serves?
Times have changed. Times continue to change. The business model of the advertising or marketing agency of yesteryear continues to morph. In a past life, the agency would protect and covet its most senior resources, only to unleash them on the client work. These marketing professionals rarely had public personas and they most certainly were not Blogging or tweeting out their every thought and strategic insight. The business of the agency was to take the back-seat as the work it produced vaulted the client into the public conscience. At its most radical, some of the more progressive marketing agencies would invest in a lab-like environment where new business models and marketing strategies would be developed and tinkered with. As a service-based industry, moves like this were considered radical because the core revenue of the agency came from the ability to sell each team member as billable time, or to grab a percentage of the revenue generated on the media side of things.
Talent has become an issue. Innovation has become an issue.
There is still no shortage of talent in the Marketing industry and it continues to innovate (sometime through its own doing and in other instances through the success of newly introduced channels and platforms). While the Marketing industry did not invent Google, it certainly helped Google (and other channels like it) to develop and nurture their Marketing capabilities. The same can be said about YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.... The challenge is that the Marketing industry continues to grow by leaps and bounds - and this is especially true on the Digital Marketing side of things. As brands shift more dollars to the Web, Mobile and Touch, there continues to be enormous pressure on the marketing agencies to produce high caliber strategies and campaigns. Us agency folk are not going to be able to capitalize on this shifting trend unless we have the right professionals in place and the right innovation happening (more on this here: Advertising Age - Holding Company Chiefs: We're Woeful When It Comes to Talent).
The challenge is not the marketing agency's desire to accommodate this shift. The challenge comes from a lack of growing resources. While many of the better agencies are staffed well, there is an overall shortage of talent and it's not something that the next generation of university graduates are going to be trained to fulfill. There have been a number of news items in the past month or so that point to a new/interesting trend. The modern marketing agency is not just about services anymore. The modern marketing agency is about turning themselves into a university and using its own revenue to stimulate innovation.
What does it look like when a Marketing agency becomes a university?
"It's a reaction to an urgent need," said John Boiler, a founder of 72 And Sunny in The New York Times Media Decoder Blog post, Los Angeles Agency to Start an Ad School. "Finding like-minded people to work in a culture like ours... We're trying to build the kind of people who would flourish in our company, people who will be effective, well-rounded marketers." Instead of trying to poach the talent from another agency or hope that some university figures out the right curriculum and nurtures the right kind of graduates, Boiler and his team are investing their own money to build a school. Their internal communications school, 72U, offers, "10 months of projects, coursework and hands-on learning for tuition of around $10,000. The goal is to begin classes in July," says the Media Decoder post. They're not the only ones. Recently, MDC Partners announced that the winner of their "Million-Dollar Challenge" for innovation in the Marketing industry was a proposed launching of an interactive media school called the Digital Works Institute. A new agency model didn't win this challenge, a school to fuel the future marketing geniuses did.
What does it look like when a Marketing agency becomes an early-stage investor in innovation?
Marketing agencies like Rockfish Interactive and kirshenbaum bond senecal + partners have both recently announced the creation of new venture funds to help start-ups interested in developing innovations within the marketing and communications space. It's not only a great way to get a peak at what's coming next, it's an incredible way of getting actual skin in the innovation game.
What's the lesson?
So long as the clients don't see these activities as taking energy and focus away from the development of their business (which - make no mistake about it - can be a huge issue), we're beginning to see enough announcements like the ones mentioned above to see a trend towards an industry that is interested in much more than self-preservation. It's becoming abundantly clear that the marketing and communications industry has a desire to not only evolve, but to thrive as our industry continues to fragment and digitize. It's going to be interesting to see if these agencies can truly deliver on the promise of real education and practical innovation.
I'm keeping my finger's crossed.