The Rise of the Modern Agency

Over the past two years, a new network model has emerged: 21st century networks. Social networks, Facebook, and YouTube (to name a few) allow users to post, share, and discuss content and are the newest frontier for content and advertising. I wrote about and Facebook a few weeks ago. YouTube launched in December of last year and, according to the “Washington Post”, it “attracts 6 million visitors each day.” In fact, according to, YouTube is on track to surpass in terms of users “any day now.” This powerfully illustrates my point.

Many have opined on what freeing content from the medium means for advertising. Others have discussed what the rise of the 21st century networks will mean for content creation and distribution. In my view, the convergence of these two trends will fuel a huge creative renaissance in advertising and lead to a new kind of agency.

What will this agency look like?

Insight gathering, strategy, and media/platform planning will make a big comeback, but in a different form.

Everyone will need to get smart about new media consumption and interaction habits… fast. Twentieth century networks were about content. Networks acquired content, lured audiences in, aggregated them, and sold impressions to advertisers. As I discussed last time, content has been freed from this model. Something new is taking shape. In the 21st century network model, communities adopt, adapt, create, and share content. Unwelcome content is filtered out, flamed, and ultimately rejected.

This poses a whole new set of challenges. Filtering the data required to understand how to find and engage enlightened consumers will be a big task. Figuring out who engaged with what and when and whether they followed the call to action will be an even bigger task. The winners here will be the systems thinkers who can create a total picture of user, or viewer, behavior (in essence, a network map instead of a media plan) and identify the logical insertion points for commercial content, then track, accelerate, and optimize its movement.

Agencies will be tasked with creating content that lives after it airs. Success will be measured by the content’s level of engagement as well as its longevity.

In the old model, an agency bought airtime to reach an audience, and placed the ad. If it was great work, it generated water-cooler talk after the fact, bled into other media, and ultimately became part of pop culture. In the new model, particularly in the networked world, commercial content must earn its own audience over time.

The long-tail theory says the Web gives content a longer, perhaps infinite, life. Value accrues over time. Go to YouTube, and search “commercials.” See what I mean by the long tail? As I write this, there are over 16,000 videos tagged with “commercials.” You can see the potential. The commercial with the highest view count is the highly awarded Sony Bravia spot (done in the U.K. by Fallon for Sony) with more than 3.3 million views over its five month lifespan on YouTube. These views aren’t from people passively watching or fast-forwarding through a commercial. These are people who actively chose to view the content. Next are three Volkswagen “Un-pimp Your Ride” spots with almost 4 million views among them. I wonder how many active views these commercials received when they were originally broadcast?

In the networked world, great content is content that engages consumers in a very fundamental way. Consumers will search for it, find it, rate it, blog about it, play with it, mash it up, pass it on, and post it for others to see. This is a whole new level of engagement. Think of it as learning by doing.

Agencies have always said they’re in the business of creating content; suddenly this is even more true. Does it mean all ad content will be a big-budget productions with celebrity casts? Of course not. One of the most viewed videos tagged “commercials” is “Christmas Lights Gone Wild,” purportedly a real video of an electrical engineer’s unique light show that ultimately was used in a commercial.

The winners in this new network model will be the truly great storytellers who can create something of real interest and value that gets people to engage with it, sample it, mash it up, and pass it on. Speaking of mash-ups, the first official movie mash-up was just commissioned by New Line Cinema.

The convergence of great systems thinkers, coupled with great storytellers, will create a new breed of agency.

I’m not exactly sure what this new breed will look like, but I have some ideas. This “modern agency” will be an experience architect in the truest sense. It will specialize in creating an experience or elements of an experience (in any medium or on any platform), where users adopt and engage with content that then moves and morphs with them through the landscape: across devices and through email boxes, communities (on- and offline), gaming environments, and virtual worlds, influencing a desired action or transaction along the way. In essence, the modern agency will create engaging consumer experiences and shares them on behalf of brands rather than neatly packaged brand messages broadcast at a target. See the difference?

The interactive world is evolving rapidly. New models are emerging that remind us of the fundamentals of the Web. It’s hard to say what the winning agency will look like, but I have put forward a hypothesis. What do you think?

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