Are agencies dead?

I’ve worked in a lot of agencies. Most of them don’t exist anymore. That probably says more about me than the agencies – I have the inverse Midas touch!

I went into a DM agency straight out of university (oh, OK then it was a polytechnic – I wasn’t smart enough for uni). It was a great little place in the London red light district of Soho, right opposite the famous Raymond Revuebar (enough said).

Much like this esteemed establishment, most of the senior guys in the agency had seen better days. We’re talking 1989, so the agency was staffed with washed-up ad men milking the last few years from their fading careers, and a scattering of young muppets like me who had vaguely heard of direct marketing.

It was marvellous. Imagine this for a minute:

  • no mobile phones – clients were perfectly understanding when told that you were out of the office for the afternoon and would call them back in the morning
  • no pubs open between 3pm and 6pm – the licensing laws still in place from WWII meant that you had to be a member of a ‘drinking club’ for those busy afternoons mentioned above
  • no Apple Macs – artwork was a mysterious business involving bromides, scalpels, mounting glue and hand-drawn colour mark-ups, and
  • no email – we used to actually meet with clients and talk to them on the phone! Sacrilege.

But, best of all, agencies actually used to make a decent profit margin. Obviously this wasn’t much of a concern for me in my role as trainee shit-kicker, but in fact it made a huge difference to my life.

How? Well, because they could actually afford to have a clueless idiot like me on the books. They could afford to train me, make it fun, and not expect me to add value and charge billable hours from day one. They could afford to give me the ultimate luxury – the time to learn my trade. And whilst I’d like to continue my merry jaunt down memory lane, here’s my point – how many agencies can afford to carry the cost of training non-billable juniors nowadays?

If you’re a client reading this, you’re probably horrified that your agency isn’t investing in the future. But you’re probably also to blame. You’ve no doubt negotiated a deal that takes your agency as close to break-even as possible. Hell, if you’re a big client with a belligerent procurement department you’ve probably driven them past that point.

Yet I’m sure you demand highly talented, senior people on your business – you don’t have time for juniors and they don’t ‘add value’. So your agency probably isn’t carrying a lot of 20-year-olds learning their trade – how can they?

But there’s an even bigger problem: nobody wants your job even if you could afford to offer it. That’s because Gen Y isn’t interested in taking its time to learn a trade. No Siree, your average graduate today expects to join an agency and be presenting strategy papers to the client CEO within around three months.

Contact reports? “I don’t do admin.”

Timelines? “Someone else’s job.”

Proofreading? “As if.”

And, as we keep hearing, we’re living in an unprecedented economic boom with pretty much full employment. So if your agency isn’t letting them present those strategies within three months, then they’ll go to one who will. And that may be here or overseas, because of course nowadays it’s a global market for talent.

This is a serious problem for both clients and agencies, because as clients have downsized their marketing departments they’ve pushed a lot of dull admin work onto their agencies – and we can’t find and can’t afford the people to do it.

As a result, everyone’s simply working harder for longer, and burning out faster. Let’s make no bones about it: being in agency account management nowadays is a tough gig.

So what’s the answer?

I wish I knew. We’re not dead yet, but every agency I talk to has the same problem, and unless clients and agencies get together to find a solution then we’re all going to suffer.

So despite the bad music, bad hair and bad fashion, perhaps 1989 wasn’t so bad after all.