Agency of the Year: A Marketer’s Perspective

As the hoopla over the merits of the year’s this and that settle down, I’m left wondering, “Which agency really is Agency of the Year?” More to the point, in a highly fragmented and networked social setting, what does Agency of the Year really mean? Isn’t it by definition different things for different people?

Let’s start with “Time” magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year. For 80 years, “Time” has selected someone who did something its readership could agree had done something extraordinary, the benefits of which accrued to more or less everyone. These people include Charles Lindbergh (1927), Winston Churchill (1940), Elizabeth II (1952), Martin Luther King (1963), and Jeff Bezos (1999). In this context, 2006’s Person of the Year (You!) seems questionably plausible. I agree people as connected individuals (a.k.a., Internet users) are exerting unparalleled influence on all aspects of contemporary society. At the same, it’s a stretch that I actually did something someone else noticed, so it’s always with suspicion that I greet an award that somehow implies I’m some sort of winner. But, hey, I’ll take it.

By comparison, Agency of the Year from “Ad Age” seems to be a partially panicked “since it can’t be Draft…” and a partially calculated “Gee, ‘Time’ seems to be selling a lot of copies…” effort to jump on the same bandwagon. Problem is, the consumer can’t be agency of the year. A declaration to this effect rings hollow.

First, consider the Person of the Year. Yes, the connected nature of people (at least in the parts of the world where electronic connections exist) has had a significant effect. However, there actually were people last year who stood out from the rest and benefited many. Had it chosen to do so, “Time” could have found a Person of the Year. Unless you’ve spent the last 10 years in parts of the world where connectivity doesn’t exist, the actual new information supporting the magazine’s choice of Internet users was painfully thin. Provocative cover aside, what real recognition of achievement was connoted by selecting users as Person of the Year? But as Stephen Colbert said, “On behalf of all of you, I’ll take the award.”

Next comes “Ad Age” with its declaration that the Agency of Year is the consumer. How can a consumer possibly be an agency? The two approach the marketplace from opposite perspectives. An agency’s challenge is to get sleepy consumers to buy an eyeglass scratch repair kit. A consumer’s challenge is to never fall for such a deception. Simply put, until agencies represent consumers, consumers cannot appropriately be called Agency of the Year. Viewed this way, the “Ad Age” award makes about as much sense as those upside-down org charts we all drew in the ’80s, implying that executives were all in support of those “above us.” That the distribution of expensive cars in most parking lots still correlates perfectly with the distribution of titles starting with executive, senior, and chief explains how likely an agency is to view the consumer as executive creative director any time soon.

It’s not that consumers don’t have the power. They clearly do. And it’s not that agencies aren’t beneficial to their clients. They are. It’s that the role of the agency — given the newfound connectedness of consumers — has changed. Instead of trying to convince me eyeglass scratch repair kits work (they don’t), smart agency people will push for campaigns that facilitate beneficial conversations from the consumers’ perspective and develop internal practices that link their clients’ operations and marketing units in product and service development. Why? It’s the consumer experience that drives the ensuing conversation. That experience may be promised or even specified in marketing, but it’s created in operations.

Clients see the value of an agency that operates first and foremost toward the goal of building goodwill among consumers based on actual experience rather than just a perceived promise. Simply put, the best awareness campaigns will continue to get some number of consumers to try something. The difference is in what happens next: If the experience is stellar, it’s game on. If it’s crap, it’s game over. That’s what the new connectivity changes.

In the end, there really is an agency of the year. It’s not the consumer. It’s the agency that works with its clients to put superior products and services (not just great, well-executed promises) into the marketplace, then works to ensure consumers are talking about them across all consumer channels and in all the ways consumers talk. Consumers by themselves can’t do this directly (though they can certainly do it indirectly) as they lack an advocate. The agency of the year will be the agency that rises to the role of consumer advocate and thereby serves the needs of its clients.

Therein lies the biggest indicator of what’s truly Agency of the Year from a marketer’s perspective. Rather than acting (as indicated by “Ad Age”) in service of its clients’ brands, the Agency of the Year is the agency that acts in service of its clients’ customers.

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