Agencies: Have We Overstayed Our Welcome?

As the way we think about marketing evolves, with it comes the need for us marketeers to rethink the value we bring to our clients and their customers.

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By Terry Hunt, Advisor, The Future Customer

As the marketing landscape shifts around us as consumers, clients and agencies, the nature of the work we do as marketeers is being impacted by new behaviours and trends, forcing us, some more uncomfortably than others, to rethink the nature of our daily grinds. As Lee Clow, TBWA/Worldwide veteran who announced his retirement this past Valentine’s Day, sarcastically put it, “I’ve probably overstayed my welcome”. For those of us still in the mix, it’s about embracing change and being nimble, like applying design thinking to commercial challenges, tweaking the pivotal course correct versus solving everything all at once, and being able to measure and show impact. But as the way we think about marketing evolves, with it comes the need for us marketeers to rethink the value we bring to our clients and their customers.

Rise of the Subject Matter Expert

The agency model is changing. Arguably, it always has been. On the one hand, you have traditional holding companies, who, according to Sir Martin Sorrell, are heading in the same direction toward becoming one firm. “They’re all making omelettes. They’re all breaking eggs.” On the other hand, you have highly niche pockets of expertise acting more as consultants rather than as agencies. Much of the shift is happening within the context of very knowledgeable experts designing bespoke solutions that lead to longer-lasting partnerships, creating relationships that are much less confrontational. Over nearly the last decade, on the bell curve of marketing services, suppliers have been forced to serve the middle ground, where many generalists are feeling the squeeze. The key now is for agencies to figure out how they can deliver high added value that leads to more work, more projects, and more trust between supplier and client. Quality and value over thinly stretched capabilities.


Some argue that clients only want faster, cheaper, better. That’s what they are willing to spend more money on, and where the advertising and marketing industry is going, at least according to some. This is driven by the tremendous pressure facing clients these days, such as in-housing, transparency, and the nature of and how the work is being awarded — largely a shift from AOR contracts to project-based wins. For traditional advertising and media agencies, it’s easy to look at the trends and come to the conclusion that the end is nigh, Creative is being in-housed, content is becoming in-sourced, ad spend is shifting to new channels, and media buying is not being done by someone named Al but by an algorithm. While some services are becoming commoditised, there are a whole host of unmet client needs that go beyond the “traditional”, requiring fresh thinking. And as such, clients aren’t so much outsourcing or insourcing, they’re right-sourcing. It’s on agencies to be the partners who can uncover this new breed of challenges and deliver the right solutions.

Rethink Agency

The very nature of the term agency, endeared by the industry for over a hundred years and counting, even romanticised in television and film in the last decade, is at its core a standalone and one-sided concept: To be the agent of something. Today’s challenges transcend marketing as we once knew it and now require a mindset that fosters something greater than agency — namely that of collaboration, consultancy, partnership. Clients today are looking to solve problems that encompass complex and historically disparate business challenges and require an offering that is at once flexible and comprehensive.

It’s this fundamental shift in mindset that forms the basis of where we are excitedly heading as ICF Next. In a decided move away from tepid generalism, what’s required from consumers, colleagues and citizens are expert partners and consultants heading towards change and embracing disruption to bring organisations and communities closer together. 

ICF Next

We're an integrated, purpose-driven agency committed to creating the kind of change that brings you closer to connect, succeed and thrive in a rapidly changing landscape. As your strategic partner for engagement and transformation, we're focused on the insights, creativity, and technology that move and inspire people to take meaningful action. ICF Next joins together ICF's global portfolio of award-winning marketing, communications, technology and strategy businesses and includes over 1,700 changemakers across 17 global offices full of mission-driven creatives, communicators, strategists and technologists. In a world of complexity, we make change simple - helping you to break through the noise. Our clients include Three UK, Lloyds Banking Group, BMW, Vodafone, BT, European Commission, SAP, Daily Mail, easyJet, Nectar, Virgin Atlantic & Virgin Holidays and National Cancer Institute.

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