The Agency is Dead. Long live the Club.
It is an irony of the times that where once corporations hired small agencies to give them the view from the ground to advise them on what was coming down the line and how to deal with it — they now hire corporations (who were once small agencies) to tell them how to act less corporate-like in order to prepare for the coming disruption.
When agencies are being created with a three year exit strategy already in place, you know that we are at peak bullshit in agency world, where much like choosing the trinkets that go on the shelf in an Irish pub from a catalogue, agencies are now being manufactured at an alarming rate with the sole purpose of making the ‘partners’ a load of money.
I have no problem with people making a load of money, but the by-product of this behaviour is, in fact, the likely death of the agency as we know it. Agencies now appear no different to their clients, and vice versa, which then begs the question from clients, why use them? Even worse, the talented young kids who are the lifeblood of our industry find that no matter what agency they work at, the same bullshit visions and values are painted on to the walls of the office, as cover for the real driving force — money. The For-Profit agency has performed a coup d’etat, and kicked the previous For-Purpose agency out of a plane over the Atlantic Ocean. And no one seems to have noticed.
I worry for the agency, because the loss of the agency to the corporations, whether it be to the groups, the consultancies, or to people like We Work (who are busy corporatising the startup revolution for profit), is a bad thing. The agency revolutionised the workplace, and ways of working. Not long ago the prevailing argument was that someone in a t-shirt and shorts could not work as effectively as someone in a suit and tie and that if someone was sitting on a sofa and not at a desk, they were not working and likely to be skiving off.
The agency for me is synonymous with freedom — freedom to work in the best way, freedom to dress and sit where/how you want, freedom to think and change and improve and challenge, freedom to innovate and envision different ways of doing stuff. Freedom within a framework, the framework being the actual power structures of the agency that helped the talent within to make good shit happen. But now it seems the framework is just a set of quarterly numbers, which lead to a buyout and a payout, and having very little to do with delivering anything worthwhile.
The most basic function that an agency ever performed for its clients was not to be its clients. This allowed it to inject disruptive thinking into the client to help it understand the change coming, and then plan the change it would need to implement to be ready. This seems to be no longer the case.
As a client (or an employee), when your agency has put numbers on your head, and all their advice (and targets) are coloured by those numbers, it is time to move on*. The craft and the purpose, the quality and the care, have all left the building, and it is time for you to go too (as hard as it is for you to give up spending time in their lovely office, drinking their cocktails and eating their free breakfasts).
In a time when most agencies are corporations and have lost that all-important connection to the reality of their client’s customers’ lives, The Future Strategy Club has set up in a car park in Peckham in order to get back to where agencies should be — at ground level, scanning for the changes at the edges that will become mainstream, in order to advise our clients on the disruption to come (and help them successfully survive it). We are a non-profit members club made up of client partners, executive advisors and talented specialists. We exist to make our members successful, and their interests are our the priority, over the longterm.
The Future Strategy Club wants to take the agency back to basics in order to save it — by turning it into a non-profit scaleable curated network . We want to turn the usual for-profit agency bullshit, into some good shit, and in doing so put the purpose back into the agency, and maybe even do a little good in the process.
Justin Small is the founder of The Future Strategy Club and the editor of The FSC Mag.
* I generalise for effect here, but the generalisation is broadly true. There are indeed some amazing agencies out there still, like Made by Many, USTwo, Mother etc, that have managed to stick to their founding vision and purpose and are still known for their craft, care and quality. But they are the exception to the rule.