The biggest question: Is the agency model broken?
I think it is. I think it's time to re-imagine our collective approach to creative work, and it begins with the agency-client relationship itself.
I'd start by tackling those behaviors that get in the way of the real results and prioritizing the communication mix to encourage conversation with the people who matter the most: The ultimate customers.
Ten reasons why the agency model is broken
(1.) Thinking that "not invented here" is a problem
Creative is not the end-all be-all, it's a starting point. The real conversation happens afterwards, in the marketplace. Many companies are facing this same challenge of being led to the creative of a specific agency as Holy Grail.
I see a new way of working possible: Using what already exists as part of a company's DNA and building on it. Why reinvent the wheel every time?
(2.) Focusing too much on the agency's process and not enough on the client's business
This may be true especially in a B2B model. I am reminded that businesses are made of people, too. A deep knowledge of the industry's sales cycle, buyers' behaviors, and products/services goes a long way to create a communication piece that works.
An ad is (or should be) a communication piece.
(3.) Being inconsistent
Talent is a real problem, especially now that everyone scrambles to become "experts du jour" in social media or to onboard the popular ones.
Yet there should not be such disparity between the promises made by the strategy team and the output delivered by the creative group. (this is also valid when the agency is a consultancy, and a thick PowerPoint is the deliverable)
(4.) Lacking in originality
Leaf through a magazine or browse a series of websites and what do you see? A sea of sameness.
Are these all clients who could not "go for it"? I suspect not. Every single time I dared propose something that was not "how we do things here" I was pleasantly surprised that the company would go for it.
Dare to be different, and not just for the sake of being different.
(5.) Signing up for one thing and wanting it all before delivering on that one
This is common to too many providers.
Anyone enjoy sitting in hour-long capabilities presentations? How about delivering on the project you've been given first? Your work cross-sells more work for you. Stop talking, start doing. It never fails.
People hire excellence. Experiencing "excellent" is the best referral of all.
(6.) Listening but not hearing
Sometimes you may be tempted to push through early signs that you are off base.
Stop saying you are listening and start hearing what the client is telling you. How can you tell? You are two months late on a project and the client is not talking with you anymore. They have given up.
(7.) Making it hard to get work done
This is a corollary to the previous point. If you've been in business long enough, you should know how to elicit (and take) feedback while you keep moving on the project.
The worst thing you can do is to huddle away for weeks without open communication lines with your client. A powerful component of setting expectations is to collaborate by making your contact from the client part of the team.
(8.) Thinking only in terms of billable hours
In that case that's all the client ever sees.
Wherever you focus your energy and attention, that's what gets brought to the fore. Soon enough the client will stop picking up the phone and calling you for projects.
The whole compensation model needs to be revisited. The agency that cracks this code wins.
(9.) Not working on the relationship
Getting to know a client's business can be very valuable to your output in the end.
That is if you think in terms of relationship on not just billable hours. Do you want to know how we can tell the difference? How quickly do you email estimates and invoices and how often do you follow up on those vs. the project?
(10.) Moving on before the work is done
Typos, slapping copy on without working from a strategy brief, and a bevy of small mistakes are all indications that you've moved on, that you are not interested anymore.
It can be very rewarding to work with people who are passionate about what they do and make it easy for you to work with them.
I propose that the best kind of agency is the one that can be customized to the client's needs. For example, a virtual agency as a flexible solution that fits a client's business cycle. Little overhead, the ability to choose your lead copy writer and lead creative. No agency fees and none of that multiple agency problem where each tries to get more work in other areas.
This model requires confidence on the client's part that she can be the general manager. It has the potential to fit like a glove in the fragmented media environment we have moved into.
What do you think? Does virtual agency model work?
[revisited and surprisingly still applicable]