The Trouble with 'Spaces'

A few weeks back, Ad Age asked its online readers a provocative question: "Do you think 'agency' is a dirty word?" In its "Agency Issue" published the same week, one headline asked "When Did 'Agency' Become the Thing Nobody Wanted to Be?" while another called out "Adland's Identity Crisis."

At the same time, a quick glance at the digital world tells us that the term "network" is experiencing a similar wave of dis-association. Maybe it's the stress that exchanges and Demand Side Platforms have wrought; or perhaps we're just an industry that hates the old and familiar. Whatever reason, the best-known "artists formerly known as ad networks" are dropping the N word from their corporate identities and banishing it from their PowerPoint decks.

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The irony, of course, is that both "agency" and "network" were once absolutely magnetic. "Agency" connoted a powerful intersection of creativity and profit, while "Network" carried the whiff of multiplying value and global ambition. Now of course, things are different. But as it's gone for these now lonely nouns, so it will go for so many other popular labels. "DSP" is already losing its luster after just a few months in the spotlight. "Data" - which had the look and feel of a winner for a couple of years - now seems more like an insoluble quagmire of complexity.

So what's UP with all this anyway? I have a theory.

While every company claims to be unique, the overwhelming majority live within the friendly confines of "a space," offering some nuanced claim of superiority over its "spacemates." Maybe this happens because VCs and banks like to categorize their potential investments. At first capital and then advertising dollars flow to a space. It becomes crowded, then noisy, and then it eventually cools. Ultimately it ends up being ridiculed and even reviled. (Remember when "portal" was the best thing you could be?) It took decades for this cycle to play out with "the agency space;" soon we'll be measuring the lifespan of a space in weeks.

The best companies are those that refused to be categorized. Instead, they self-define through the real problems they solve for customers. Google helps you find stuff really fast. Facebook helps you stay connected to the people you know. Netflix gives you the media you want right now. It seems simple when you look at it this way. So why don't more companies avoid "spaces" and cling instead to the consumer or business issues they help solve?

I guess it really comes down to vision, leadership and discipline, which are all too scarce.