After a Year of Turmoil, the Future of Agencies May Well Be Bright

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When 2020 started, several problems were bubbling under the surface for agencies: bloated organizations, brands moving away from the agency-of-record model, in-housing, consultancies, consolidation of publishing and a lack of diversity.

Agencies sensed their relevance was dwindling, and they started to make changes—not necessarily very quickly, but there were signs of forward motion.

Then the rest of 2020 happened.

When the pandemic hit in the spring, the mission for agencies became survival. Many people lost their jobs—Forrester predicts the number will top 50,000 people by the end of this year—and slight revenue declines became major victories. Week after week, we at Adweek had the depressingly unenviable (and quite frankly, difficult) task of telling those stories.

Then, the senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black Americans laid bare deep-seated problems in the country and the industry. 600 & Rising, for example, charted a way forward for diversity, equity and inclusion. Then, The Richards Group scandal—when founder Stan Richards called a Motel 6 concept “too Black,” setting off a client exodus—took it many steps back. 

Where We Are Now

Now, as we charge into 2021, there isn’t a sense of what one would call “calm,” but agencies have a better handle on where they need to go. Shops figured out how to get lean. They have a renewed sense of purpose. And new opportunities, especially in ecommerce, present green shoots amid the ashes.

“The people who are adapting are winning,” says Michael Kassan, founder, chairman and CEO of MediaLink. “Agencies have not historically been very good at adapting, but they have no choice. This is the proverbial necessity being the mother of invention.”

Some may take umbrage at Kassan’s comment—especially smaller, more nimble agencies. But it points to the fact that agencies have to regain relevance to brands.

And this is where the clock is ticking.

Agencies have a lot on their plates as it is, but 2021 looks like a year of tweaking, prioritizing and regaining the plot wherein they are such a valuable resource for brands and their success. The good news is that some of the agency world’s most potent skills, especially around creativity and strategy, can help set a course forward. And rethinking talent and prioritizing DEI, something shops sometimes struggle with, may unlock greater opportunities for agencies.

Where We’re Going

While 2021 represents a reset of sorts, agencies still need to manage the detritus of 2020 and address priorities quickly. Adweek presented nine priorities to consultants who work in the agency space every day, and asked them to rank them in order of importance.

Creativity, strategy, “talent, leadership and culture” and DEI were in the top four. These are lifebloods of the industry and point to a prediction: With good strategy and creative output, driven by strong talent in a robust culture, agencies can thrive.

Agency consultant Peter Levitan says the agency world “has lost sight of the fact that [creativity] is its most important benefit.”

“Something most clients can’t do in-house is the development and delivery of big, market-moving creative ideas,” he says.

Like Levitan, Greg Paull, principal at R3, believes getting back to strong creative output, agencies’ bread and butter, is critical.

“With 500 million people blocking ads, creativity has become more important than ever,” he says. “No one is waiting for another Nike message, but when it comes from Colin Kaepernick, it resonates and cuts through. Big thinking matters now more than ever.”





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