How to Save Advertising Agencies

Everybody seems to be looking for the next thing for ad agencies

Stavros Kontaktsis
Jan 5 · 6 min read

They are correct in doing so.

Things aren’t right in Adland.

Google and Facebook are out for our lunch money. Clients are building in-house teams. Big conglomerates are shedding personnel and building a new narrative selling consulting services and, yes, even tapping the CRM bandwagon. The same area they were making fun of till a couple of years ago.

Let’s face it. We managed to put ourselves in the spot, and for once, we cannot campaign our way out of the problem. As an industry, we are in dire straits, but at its core, our fundamental issue is, we forgot what our job is in the first place and how to do it.

Due to Covid-19, developments in our industry accelerated. The global lockdowns, work from home, inability to produce content, cancelation of live events, depression, and a fast turn to digital were catalysts that rapidly changed the landscape in which we operated.

What we did to overcome all this? Actually, we coined the phrases “The new normal” and “We are in this together” and started trying to make everybody forget what our jobs were. We stopped trying to sell products and started selling vague causes that we weren’t able to deliver on behalf of our clients. We even wrapped around empty streets and people with masks while doing so to make things even worse.

And it worked. But not in the way we thought it did. Everybody got hold of how awkward we acted during all this and took notice. And they started pointing out the obvious. We are not part of the big kids’ table anymore.

Scott Galloway on “Post Corona” references that Google and Facebook earn or shed the four big ad groups’ value every day in the stock market. He also tells a story about him, together with Boggle from BBH, being present at board meetings of Levi’s as consultants and referring to the fact that no one has an ad man as a consultant present in their board meetings. He thinks that our job is up for disruption.

But he might be proven wrong.

Similarly, all those suggesting that Advertising Agencies should try to work more with cause and purpose marketing and try to build empathy, etc., will be proven wrong.

They are all missing a crucial point.

The simple fact that Covid-19 in the next couple of years will be a bad memory. People will go back to work, go back to their lives, and forget how it was before.

This is what we do.

We move forward and forget.

When things get back to normal, we will be thirsty for experiences just as thirsty everybody was in the 1920s after Spanish influenza — the “Roaring 20's” as they are remembered.

Take a minute and think about it. What you miss most right now? Take a small poll among your friends.

A trip, a night out with friends, being on the stands watching your team win?

Yes, you are missing the experiences and the feelings they invoke. To these experiences, you will run to when you get the chance. You will cherish them more at first and, over time, forget how it was without them.

And this new normal, pun intended, will be just like the old one in many ways. People will react to the one thing advertising used to be back when it didn’t get tangled by super targeting, re-marketing, cookie tracking, and the rest — feeling good about yourself and your choices.

This is the sauce that we forgot along the way. We got lured into hyper-targeting and digital tools and all that stuff and forgot that advertising methodology was always:

  1. Find the insight
  2. Shape the strategy
  3. Generate the ideas that derive from the strategy
  4. Leverage media to reach the right people

And we missed the mark. We got so lazy that we stopped doing steps 1–3. We just served ads through the abundance of tools at our disposal. And over time, we started delegating the job to algorithms. And these are coming from a guy that came into advertising from digital. I’m not a denier. I’m just trying to create context about our failures.

The funny thing is that at first, we got digital right. We understood the opportunity to leverage the medium to create better and more immersive experiences with the brand — the chance to break the 30'’ canvas and go off-grid to make better stuff.

Subservient kitchen built the playbook. People spent hours with it. And they connected with the brand.

Then luxury brands took advantage. Prada created the “CASTELLO CAVALCANTI” video with Wes Anderson, Jaguar launched the F-Pace with a mini-movie starring Damien Lewis, and Johnny Walker took the Giannini, Law duo, and built a masterpiece. What all these had in common was the storytelling and the emotion that derived from them. Stories that you wanted to watch.

And then? Then we started making silly posts on Facebook, GIFs, and lame Instagram stories. We valued more paid native content that nobody wants to read than an engaging piece of content that will turn heads.

It’s time to remember the sauce again. Covid-19 isn’t the only disruptor out there. Digital transformation, privacy issues, reshaping of media industries are disruptors as well. And the first thing they are disrupting is how Facebook and Google are delivering ads. Have you logged in to your Facebook ads account recently? The constant complaint about Apple is taking small businesses lunch because it blocks how Facebook pixel works.

Apple is paving the way, but things will escalate fast. I’ve switched to Safari from Chrome the last couple of months, and I’m having a blast of how “untargeted” are the ads I’m being served from Google. No retargeting outside of Facebook and Instagram. Yesterday I was being served ads about women’s leg waxing or something.

Changes are coming slowly at first, but they are coming. Adblocking is on the rise. More and more people are switching to paid content. The free one is unbearable. You are trying to read an article, and you get 100 pop-ups.

We are not engaging.

We are not grabbing attention.

We are just annoying.

Why is that? Because we stopped doing our job. Make great ads and sell a lot of products.

In the words of Howard Luck Gossage, “Our first duty is not to the old sales curve, it is to the audience.”

If an agency wishes to be relevant and have a future, it must go back to the basics and remember. You are talking to your audience.

A new creative revolution is the only way for those that are willing to take the leap.

A creative revolution that can create content that will invoke conversations. Just in the way, BBH’s John Hegarty maint them. Things that will get your brand noticed will help it stand out in the comparison on some Amazon listing without you needing to buy ad space for it on the platform.

Content that the YouTube premium member will want to watch. Content that will be entertaining and useful will make the SEM ad you are trying to fit in the conversation obsolete. Because a disruption in search is on the way as well.

Advertising works when it’s relevant and entertaining. When it builds connections with the audience and taps into real insights. You need proof?

Take a look at the FMCG space. You know, the one being disrupted by small organic, natural, eco, whatever brands, direct to consumer and all that.

Well, check again.

Branded FMCG products are on the rise. Because during a crisis that changed the way we shop, we tend to buy what we trust. And trust comes from familiarity. You don’t need to read Byron Sharp to know that you pick what you know when in doubt.

Advertising Agencies have sauce. They just need to put it to good use again. We need to stop planning based on the budget and the media and start planning on solving the problems at hand. The media landscape is so vast that we can find a way to tell our stories. And if we begin, again, compellingly telling them and move products along the way, everything will be OK.

Identify the problem the client is facing.

Find the entry point.


Create a good idea and produce the hell out of it.

Unleash it to the public and follow through with the conversation.

And stop being dictated by an algorithm.

Create a path around it.

On Advertising

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Stavros Kontaktsis

Written by

With a diploma in Chemical Engineering I ended up in Advertising and Communications. I like gadgets and snorkeling. Opinions are my own.

On Advertising

We’re an open community of Executives, Strategists, Designers, Developers and Students alike, skeptically examining communication, technology and culture.

Stavros Kontaktsis

Written by

With a diploma in Chemical Engineering I ended up in Advertising and Communications. I like gadgets and snorkeling. Opinions are my own.

On Advertising

We’re an open community of Executives, Strategists, Designers, Developers and Students alike, skeptically examining communication, technology and culture.

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