The future of agencies – Business problem solving or creativity for creativity’s sake?

We’ve all seen it happen. A brand creates a beautiful TV ad with a strong idea and a clear call to action. Yet when you click onto their site, it looks like something an intern did 10 years ago. There’s no joined up thinking.

The problem starts from the very first day of planning on a new campaign. The creative agency comes with their approach (often a big budget TV ad), the media company gives their tuppence worth (let’s do display and media partnerships), the digital agency offers their input (let’s build a website and some social content) and the PR agency wants to do it their way (let’s do a press drop and some activation).

We all exist in our own little bubbles, biased by the way we generate revenue and the KPIs that have been set. It means that we don’t or can’t think about the bigger business picture.

The end result is that campaign integration suffers. Everything feels separate. Campaigns that should be brilliant end up completely disconnected and confusing.


Agency land isn’t the only part of this problem either. Within the companies that we work with, integration is a forgotten word. Silos are created. Often, marketing sits in one area, digital in another, product in another, loyalty in another, customer service in another etc.

This results in misalignment of incentives. If my job on the marketing team requires me to buy media and come up with a brand campaign, then I’m going to do that. I’m not going to worry so much about where we’re driving people to, or what the actual product I’m selling is like.

But this doesn’t reflect how the people we’re selling to experience our product or service. When consumers buy a product, they don’t see marketing and product and experience as separate things. To them it’s all one and the same. It should all feel coherent and consistent, part of the same package.

Every marketer tacitly understands that the customer experience is important. But most of us only focus on the parts of that experience under their direct control. We need to take a broader view and pay attention to the entire customer experience from end to end. This includes the product, the buying process, the ability to provide support, and customer relationships over time. That takes time and resources – and it also requires bringing creative thinking to unfamiliar business problems, rather than seeing everything through our own small filter.

Rory Sutherland and Dave Trott, two of the foremost thinkers in advertising, come out strongly on this topic recently.

According to Sutherland, siloed agency thinking is opening the door to consultancies, hungry to steal our supper.

He feels that adland is preprogrammed to not see the big picture, to focus just on comms challenges. We answer all briefs with the same set of tools, and feel like if there’s not explicit bought communication in the solution, we’re cheating. As a result, we focus too much on the cosmetic issues of business and not enough on the hundreds of ways to apply creativity to business. As the old quote goes:

If all you have is a hammer you’ll see everything as a nail.

Luckily, within agencies we have more than just a hammer, we have other tools too. But we’re forgetting that marketing is not just about communicating. It’s about solving business problems. Sometimes they can be solved through communications, but sometimes there’s another way.

All of this creates a self fulfilling prophesy, where consultancies like Accenture and PWC will start getting asked to solve strategic, high level problems problems and agencies will just be used as a way to communicate the solutions – commoditising our worth and thus, further decreasing our value.

As Sutherland says…

“a good agency should be a general hospital, but currently it has a sign out front saying ‘cosmetic surgery’.”

We pigeonhole ourselves as communicators rather than business problem solvers, and by doing this, we close off our access to board level.

What’s the solution then?

Let’s start seeing things more broadly. Let’s be brave and humble enough in agency land to propose the right solution, instead of the solution that will improve our bottom line but lead to headaches in the longer term.

Let’s understand the end to end experience and not just focus on our own area.

Let’s start seeing business problems rather than comms challenges.

The more I think about it, the more I start to realise that the biggest problem in Irish marketing at the moment, an unquantifiable black hole of wasted budget, revolves around siloed, biased, close minded ways of operating.

Marketing must now do more to impact areas outside communication – experience, product, pricing and business strategy.

As Trott says, it’s the difference between function and decoration.

If we want to be taken seriously, we need to be able to do both.