The doldrums of summer notwithstanding, I've noticed no dearth of self-reflective articles discussing the changing role of the advertising/marketing agency in a web 2.0 world.
Great minds wax poetic about the move from push to pull, from TV to web, from monologue to dialogue – and these are great discussion topics.
But you know what? Almost none of these articles talk about sales.
Are we forgetting our purpose?
Bursting A Bubble
I remember back when the internet was the shiny new object of fascination. Over time, businesses that marketed online to sell products survived (i.e. Amazon.com) and those that just focused on the fun online marketing stuff…well, didn't (i.e. Pets.com).
Are we seeing a similar trend with social media? A lot of brands are throwing money at engagement and conversation and friending – but is this making the cash register ring?
Real Marketers Still Make – And Sell – Stuff
Phil Johnson's Ad Age piece entitled Agencies Should Be Defined by What They Know, Not What They Make is one of the articles about the modern agency that rubbed me wrong.
As I read it, his article focuses on what we know (communication) at the expense of what we make (ads/experiences which turn into sales). From Johnson's article:
"My conviction is that advertising agencies should become a community full of intellectually curious people…Clients should feel compelled to work with a given agency because they hold the keys to the mysteries of how people communicate with each other."
OK, sure, but isn't this a tad esoteric?
Clients aren't comforted by what you know. They'd rather see how you turn that into sales.
Agencies that use social media, then foster loyalty and trust, and then turn that into sales – those agencies will triumph. But agencies that dabble in social media without even considering ROI or sales…think Pets.com 2.0.
Marketers and advertisers who consider sales not lofty enough of a goal would do well to remember David Ogilvy's number one obiter dictum from Confessions of an Advertising Man:
"We sell – or else."
What Should Agency Employees Do?
Agency employees would be wise to learn as much as they can. I'm not picking on Johnson or even saying he's incorrect – marketers should know their craft, should buttress creativity with strategy. But they should then put down the book, fire up their computer, and get to work.
Forrester Research reported earlier this month that "The result [of their survey about media effectiveness] is that digital, which will be about 12% of overall advertising spend in 2009, is likely to grow to about 21% in five years." In this age of growth, wouldn't you rather be with an agency with a large portfolio of actual work?
It's true that agencies are differentiated by what they know, but they will be defined by what they create.
Because last time I checked, clients hired agencies to make, to create. Try explaining to a client that you were "evolv[ing] with the communications zeitgeist" on their dime (Johnson quote). They won't buy it (and they shouldn't).
So, let's be predictably irrational when we join the conversation and have a big ol' bowl of meatball sundae. But let's remember our purpose as we're doing it.
(If you want more about how the modern agency model is changing, I recommend Jeremy Abelson's Embrace For Impact, Rick Liebling's Agency Nil, Crispin Porter + Bogusky & BBH Labs on agency models, and Danielle Sacks' interview in Selling Soap. Literally. published in Fast Company magazine.)