Hate the Industry, Love the Craft

Our industry is becoming less and less alluring, says Crossmedia USA co-founder Kamran Asghar. But what can we do to shift the dysfunctional, often toxic dynamic between clients and agencies? Kamran takes a look at how solutions-based operating principle, human intelligence, and operational transparency can help agencies regain their high ground as practitioners of excellent work.

Many are lured into the agency business because they find the craft—the art in some cases – of persuasion compelling. But our industry is becoming less alluring.

People like to blame the 90’s. Agencies got unbundled and media channels and consumer choice proliferated. Commerce was beating up on art and advertising became more rational and less intuitive. The misery quotient rose.

“Hate the industry, love the craft” sums up how many of the disgruntled feel. We rely too much on old schemes, creating a dysfunctional, often toxic dynamic between clients and agencies marked by shrinking margins and unmet expectations.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Flexible & Consultative, Not Rigid and Myopic

If agencies want to remain relevant, they need to truly embrace an omnichannel, solutions-based media-agnostic ethos. Nothing less than a consultative framework flexible enough to stretch and reconfigure on the fly to meet rapid market changes will be required.

If you hate me already, it just might be because you won’t face the reality that our compensation model is broken because our operating model is. When agencies lost sight of the primacy of a solutions-based, outcome-focused operating principle in favor of chasing the easy dollars, that’s when the worm turned. Yes, agency compensation has shrunk in large part to the complexities created by technology and the proliferation of channels and choice. But unbundling had a poisonous impact on the agency value proposition. Creative and media needs wholesale re-bundling. When too many in our ecosystem are willing to countenance a cheap and often fraudulent model, then we are truly moving from “craft” to “industry.”

Human Intelligence Will Lead Us Forward

Zoom @ Home has been a savior in helping us adapt to a once-in-a-century health crisis. But we all know that technology is a mixed bag that ignites humanity’s worst instincts as well as lifting its higher angels. Facebook is a prime example.

Placing blind faith in AI (machine learning) is a mistake. I’m not one who subscribes to Andrew Yang’s vision of vocational Armageddon with bots replacing humans. However, it is folly to go all in on technology. Machines are making labor more efficient, but it doesn’t necessarily always make you more intelligent. Human intelligence should always be critical as a bulwark against the rigidity of AI.

Human intelligence can only be properly optimized if an agency has built a culture that rewards the relentless search for insight and inspiration, which can lead to bold, better client outcomes.

Operational Transparency Beyond Remuneration

Transparency is not just about honor in getting paid but about how you conduct every part of your relationship. Prioritizing operational transparency requires courage and a certain fearlessness, and it is required for sustainability. Clients are no longer taking agencies’ word. They want full visibility into the supply chain. What’s great about restaurant open kitchens is you get to see how the sausage is made. Brands now demand accountability at a granular level—no longer just paying it lip service—and some of the more progressive ones have gone down the in-housing road.

By making these fundamental changes, agencies will be poised to regain the high ground as practitioners of high-value work that align with client KPIs. We can no longer afford to celebrate tacticians and demoralize the creative risk-takers. It was the latter upon which our industry was built and upon which we should continue to build.

This article was first published with ADAGE on 10/30/2020.

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