The Soda Academy
"The agency model of the future is neither service-centric nor product-centric…it’s guided by human intuition, but held accountable by machine-based learning."
"Enlightened agencies are rethinking organizational designs, recruiting in unconventional talent pools, hacking inefficient workflows, and testing new methodologies for intelligence gathering and analysis."

Sean McNamara, Omelet

Think Like a Product Developer

The traditional agency model is built for service. It looks something like this: a client has a need – a marketing problem that said client does not have the capabilities to solve itself – and an agency fulfills it with generalized services. For the 99% of agencies that bill themselves as full-service shops, that means bundling the functions of strategy, creative, production and distribution, and delivering 360-degree thinking, whether the client ordered the whole pie or just a slice.

These services are often packaged under the guise of “the big idea,” an eminently campaign-able concept that promises brand consistency across all mediums, not to mention a protracted shelf-life, on the condition that the agency-of-record own the linear process that nurtures that idea to life, from inception to delivery to the grave.

Value is measured by the perceived quality of the deliverables (translation: how well the agency protects the idea from being smothered to a premature death by the client). Price is determined by time and headcount. There’s scarcely any incentive for alacrity or speed since the longer it takes to move the idea down that assembly line, and the more workers who have to be involved in building it, the more lucrative the engagement.

On the other end of the spectrum, a new breed of upstarts is prototyping a very different agency model, focused on productizing solutions. By offering clients access to media and technology platforms, supported by distributed networks of specialists, they operate more like software developers than creative storytellers. In agency circles, the words “automated marketing solutions” typically provoke one of two reactions: sweaty night terrors for seasoned advertising veterans or the promise of making money while sleeping for aspiring ad tech entrepreneurs.

For product-centric shops, value is measured in positive outcomes, and price is determined by performance, or the ability of a black box solution – be it an algorithm, artificial intelligence model, or data stream – to generate measurable sales results. The more efficiently and effectively it drives bottom-funnel conversions, and the lower the cost-per-transaction, the higher the payout.

Somewhere in between these two polar opposites is the agency model of the future. It’s neither service-centric nor product-centric. It’s guided by human intuition, but held accountable by machine-based learning. It’s equal parts predictive and reactive. It can balance the changing needs of clients with the unpredictable needs of clients’ customers. Clients now need to out-think (not necessarily out-spend) their competitors in an environment where consumers have more choice, and therefore more control, than ever before. This model anticipates unstated needs earlier and with greater accuracy, and informs rapid ideation, deployment, measurement, and optimization of solutions.

It may sound utopian, even unrealistic, given the harsh realities of the bare-knuckle boxing ring most creative agencies enter each day. But there is a new breed of agencies that are actively adapting at the speed of change: rethinking organizational designs, recruiting in unconventional talent pools, taking apart those linear processes, hacking inefficient workflows, and testing new methodologies for intelligence gathering and analysis.

These agencies are placing lots of smaller bets on opportunities that sit on the far corners of the table, rather than reinforcing their core competencies. They’re developing their own IP, investing in new ventures, and funding enterprises that have no immediate revenue stream attached to them.

At first blush, these efforts may appear to be loss-leaders, or short-term tactics to gain visibility in a crowded and homogenous space, but they’re more often strategic initiatives designed to attract and retain the best talent, develop high-potential employees, and build organizational intelligence that transcends those inbound opportunities from paying clients that keep the lights on.

As more client organizations, from legacy incumbents to disruptive startups, move towards structures where product development and marketing align under a single team, this new agency models also reflects a shift in corporate strategy that’s pushing the product into the spotlight. As a result, marketing stories are being seeded further upstream in the R&D process to generate early demand.

And that’s the real opportunity ahead for futurists – to reorient the agency business for a fast and fluid marketplace where everything, including ‘the big idea’, is forever in prototype, and nothing is precious. Will you be ready?

About the author:

In addition to steering Omelet's strategic vision and leading all client engagements, Sean recently launched The Roost, a strategic consulting and advisory unit dedicated to accelerating growth and innovation. Sean graduated from Colgate University with a degree in Latin American Studies, and has lived in Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Hong Kong, and throughout the United States. When he’s not locked in a war room at the office or on the road with clients, Sean can be found at the beach in Venice with his daughter Quinn.