What Does The Agency Of The Future Look Like?
I travelled more than 50.000 kilometres to find out.
Last year I visited 50 modern marketing agencies to interview their visionary leaders and dive into their culture. I called this adventure Agency Safari, a 3-month quest to find and document some of the wildest companies in the industry. This is the first of many articles where I’ll share my findings, and hopefully help shed some light on the future of the agency business model.
On the hunt for Wild Agencies
The world has changed a lot in the last few decades and, as a result, a lot of industries were deeply transformed. What about the advertising industry? What changed in the way agencies operate? Not much. Most agencies are still 20th-century companies living in a 21st-century world, slowly becoming irrelevant to clients and young talent (not to mention the consumers they create ads for). They’re a bit like caged animals, limited by traditional corporate structures and the pressure to maximize profit for shareholders.
Our hope lies in a few rare companies, running free in the outskirts of the industry, that are currently re-thinking the value an agency can deliver, experimenting with bold new organisational designs and diversifying what we make and how we work. I decided to call this new breed of creative shops Wild Agencies, and I believe we should observe them more closely.
Spotting these unique creatures was the first challenge but, after some intensive hunting and peer recommendations, I ended up with an interesting shortlist of roughly 100 companies. Most were independent or lesser-known, and some don’t even call themselves an “agency” anymore. I tried to combine as many different species as possible to avoid ending up only with the same old best in class agencies and recycling the same stereotypes of what’s success and creativity in our industry.
After all the research and planning, it was time to finally start my global journey to explore the wild agencies of tomorrow.
A quick overview of the Safari
The Agency Safari started in September 2018 in Helsinki, where I stayed for 4 weeks working full-time at hasan&partners, one of the top independent agencies in the world. In the following 6 weeks, I visited other agencies in Europe, Asia, and Australia. From tiny studios with just 3 people (like Mori Inc. in Tokyo or The Unicorn in Copenhagen) to giant multinational operations (like Jung von Matt or MediaMonks). But regardless of size and scope, most visits started with a quick office tour, followed by an audio-recorded interview with someone from the senior leadership.
I spent a total of 70 days abroad and visited more than 50 agencies in 15 different cities. That’s 12 planes, 6 trains, countless Ubers and almost 500km on foot. But more importantly, I had the chance to meet more than 100 inspiring and giving people. Some of them are featured in the Agency Safari Instagram account.
What does the agency of the future look like?
I haven’t been able to unpack all the knowledge I collected during my journey (yet). Compiling all the interviews and observations in this series of articles will be a year-long project, but I’m already pretty sure that there’s no universal answer or single formula for the agency of the future.
There are, however, some commonalities between successful agencies. One of these common denominators is clarity. Wild agencies know what they’re truly about. They know what should never change when everything else changes. And they know very clearly why they work in this industry.
- Some are after the fun and care a lot about their people (what I call the employee mindset).
- Others are after fame and obsessed about their product (the artist mindset).
- And others are after the fortune and focused mainly on profit (the business mindset).
I’m not saying you should ignore 2 of these 3 strategies — they are not mutually exclusive — but knowing which one drives you will be crucial for making smart long-term decisions.
What do you value the most? Good people, good work or good money? No matter what your answer is, knowing what you’re about and being passionate about it is how you build an agency brand for the future. Having a point of view is how you get talked about, and how you get talented people to join your company, and how you get invited to speak at events. Having an opinion to stand up for is how you stand out. Even if that means making enemies or walking away from clients now and then.
The irony here is that the best advice for agencies is the one we usually give to clients. We challenge them to find their purpose and act on it. But we, the agencies, rarely follow this advice. Expert craftsmanship is still vital, but without purpose, we end up competing for clients and talent solely on price. Without a clear purpose, most agencies are commodities.
My next 3 articles will be all about challenging you to reflect and experiment. Each article will focus on one of the 3 strategies listed above — Profit, Product and People — and outline 3 different experiments that you can try at your agency, all based on real stories and examples. After that, I will also write the individual profile of the 30 most interesting agencies I visited.
Thank you for reading,