The Agency's Secret Weapon: Sellers

I read with great interest Giselle Abrovovich's recent Digiday article on "5 Ways Brands are Cutting Out Agencies." It seems that whether they're flirting with digital start-ups, generating social content or running their own programmatic trading machinery, clients just can't wait to elbow their agencies out of the way. Or so it would seem. To me the whole issue is a little more complicated, interesting and full of opportunity.

Let's start with the premises that are prompting marketers to "do it themselves" or work directly with publisher and technology suppliers. There's likely an assumption -- often correct -- that the agency is still a service business that's going to bill the client by the middle-man-hour for new practices and capabilities where they may not have any deep expertise. Essentially, that the agency will be "learning on the client's dime" and not adding enough value to justify the extra steps and fees.

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The pendulum will swing the other way, of course. Clients will at some point realize that their own bench strength and capabilities can't keep up with these one-on-one vendor relationships. This could result in the emergence of "intellectual middleware" companies -- specialized service providers (mini-agencies perhaps) who can help the marketer sort and execute social publishing, dynamic content generation, etc. The bigger agencies and holding companies could then do what they've traditionally done: either (a) set up an in-house mascot who'll carefully study these practices and sound good in meetings, (b) acquire these service companies once they get fat enough or (c) both a and b. Or they can try something I suggested in this space back in 2007: become an "intellectual router."
For most of the first century of its existence, the agency biz has been about locking down the smartest people and generating all the best ideas yourself. No more. There are just too many directions and too much complexity for any shop to become more than an average generalist.I think the central value embraced by the very best agencies will be their ability and willingness to channel the best thinking of media companies and publishers on behalf of their clients. It's not about being a powerful mainframe any more; it's about being a router. This may seem to fit nicely into all the happy talk of the standard agency brochure, but realizing this role will demand a big shift in behavior, culture and orientation. Rather than bragging about all the smart people they control, the true Intellectual Router will brag about the number of great relationships it can activate.
In the near term, pay attention to all those sellers who are banging down your doors with crazy ideas that don't neatly fit your buying models. Teach your planners and supervisors to find ways to quickly and effectively bring non-standard concepts to the attention of clients. Forget the long-winded POVs and "innovation summits." Instead start rewarding the right-brain thinkers and connectors in your organizations. They're more than a bridge to your future: they're your bulwark against commoditization of your core value.