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What Is An Agency's Role?

on 31 Jan  Posted by Admin  Category: Internet Related  
by Gord Hotchkiss

Last week, I was talking to someone about what  role a digital agency would play in the future. We went down all the usual paths and came up with the usual answers, but afterward the question still lingered. What is our role in the future? I’m reasonably certain it won’t be the same as our role in the past.
In cases like this, I some­times find it help­ful to do a lit­tle lin­guis­tic exca­va­tion. I’m con­stantly sur­prised by how con­cise and accu­rate the labels we choose are, if we spend the time to explore their roots and unearth their true meaning.

What then is an “agency”? Well, agency is sim­ply the capac­ity of an agent to act. It’s the sphere of “action” that sur­rounds an agent. So, we have to dig a lit­tle deeper. What is an “agent”? An agent is one who acts for another, by author­ity from them.  It seems sim­ple, but is there a fun­da­men­tal con­cept here that has got fuzzy with time?

I think, in the early his­tory of adver­tis­ing, that agen­cies very much aligned with this def­i­n­i­tion. They car­ried out the acts of adver­tis­ing, includ­ing cre­ation of the mes­sages, pro­duc­tion and place­ment, at the behest of their clients. The best agen­cies also had the abil­ity to not sim­ply act, but also con­tribute by help­ing clients uncover and com­mu­ni­cate core brand val­ues that res­onated with an audience.

It was here that the role of the agency started to shift. It had to do with the con­cept of brand own­er­ship. Some­where along the line, agents began to believe they owned the brand. And clients seemed will­ing to abdi­cate this power to their agents. One agency talks about “360 degree brand stew­ard­ship.” It sounds nice, warm and fuzzy, but let’s cut the fat away and get to the bone of this phrase. What, really, does that mean?

To “stew­ard” a brand means to care for it and improve it over time. Again, that sounds like a good thing. But I fear that it shifts a fun­da­men­tal duty into the wrong hands. I believe that “car­ing” implies own­er­ship, and it can leave a brand in a pre­car­i­ous pur­ga­tory, caught between the com­pany itself and it’s agency. In the days when brands were built largely around media expo­sure, per­haps it made sense for the fate of that brand to live with the agency. But that’s no longer the case. As Jakob Neilsen has said on at least one occa­sion, now, “brands are built by expe­ri­ence, not expo­sure”. And the brand expe­ri­ence has to live with the com­pany whose DNA defines the brand. They have to be, by neces­sity, the stew­ards of their own brand, because so much of what makes that brand lives beyond the reach of an agency.

So if the orig­i­nal def­i­n­i­tion of an agency is passé, and the role of stew­ard­ship has to live with the com­pany, what then do we become? I can hear echoes of “strate­gic part­ners” out there as I write. But to me those terms have had all their essen­tial mean­ings squeezed out by overuse. I don’t think they cap­ture the essence of what a dig­i­tal agency should be. “Strate­gic part­ners” as a label is like a blan­ket, cov­er­ing every­thing but defin­ing nothing.

When I look at our best rela­tion­ships with clients, there are three other terms I would use: “cat­a­lyst”, “accel­er­a­tor” and “guide”.

As a cat­a­lyst, we’re there to trig­ger change, to set off a chain reac­tion that has the poten­tial to trans­form an orga­ni­za­tion.  We can do this by giv­ing them a vision of what’s pos­si­ble. As an accel­er­a­tor we’re there to remove the road­blocks pre­vent­ing the trans­for­ma­tion. Finally, as a guide, we’re there to pro­vide direc­tion, help­ing the client nav­i­gate the trou­bled waters of dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion and giv­ing them some idea of what to expect.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider January 26, 2012

Biography / Resume : Gord Hotchkiss is the founder and senior vice president of Enquiro, now part of Mediative. He is renowned in the industry for his expertise when it comes