29 October 2009

Is "Agency" a bad word?

There was a nice roundup in yesterday's New York Times on the various agency start-ups in the Big Apple these days.

Wait. Did I say "agency"? That might have been a bad word.

The article quotes NY adman Brett Shevack as saying: "What's important is to lose the mentality of 'agency of record' and adopt the mentality of 'catalyst of record'." The article helpfully clarifies that this means "serve marketers as a force for change rather than as a supplier of the status quo".

Here we see the pervasive stereotype of today's ad agencies as backward, traditional, almost Luddite institutions, robotically producing 30-second TV commercials. (Sadly, there are some people and places in the industry where this stereotype is true.)

The word "agency" seems to be out of fashion. Last year a university professor told a large conference that the word "agency" means "the state of serving as an official and authorized delegate or agent". He helpfully clarified that "all agencies did was place the media for a commission and then provide the creative for free." This is factual, but incomplete.

If you check this definition of the word "agency", you will see not only the professor's definition but this one: "a business that serves other businesses". I like this definition better because it applies to agency models old, new and evolving.

To live up to this particular definition -- and Shevack's "catalyst of record" -- an agency of any model must learn the client's business, identify the consumer insight, set a clear business objective, and then help the client achieve it with strong creative in a channel-neutral plan.

If we all do that, "agency" will be a good word again.

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