Villing & Company

Invention and Reinvention: How the Agency Business Has Changed!

Over the last few years, I have used this space on occasion to comment on how this business we love so much has changed. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes not so much.

I just had a chance to review Ad Age magazine’s annual Agency of the Year issue. If ever there was a poster child for an industry’s evolution, it is this issue. In the Top 10 were no less than six agencies that I daresay were unheard of even a few years ago. 360i. Droga5. Anamoly. 72andSunny. And LatinWorks. To name a few. Conspicuous by their absence were names like Weiden & Kennedy, McCann. Burnett. Goodby. And Crispin-Porter.

Now members of this latter group of “name” agencies may argue with some legitimacy that Ad Age’s selection process does not exactly play to their strengths, but the Top 10 definitely speaks to the changing agency world. Having said all this, it is also interesting that the Agency of the Year is actually the ultimate throwback. Grey Advertising is nearly a century-old and it’s been a long time since they had a reputation as a “hot” shop. I remember interviewing with them back before we started Villing & Company and while their size and client roster were impressive, I couldn’t help but get the feeling they were living off their legacy.

Not anymore.

So how do I reconcile this discrepancy between a major old-line agency being selected Agency of the Year, while the rest of the list was heavily weighted with lesser known but newly rising stars? In this case, I believe it is truly a situation of the exception proving the rule.

Consider this opening paragraph from the Ad Age story:

“When a headhunter approached (now North American CEO) Michael Houston in 2007 about coming to Grey, he had no interest. The WPP agency was widely regarded as an old-school shop that had lost its cachet with both clients and talent. But when Mr. Houston demurred, the recruiter told him: ‘You just passed the first test, because they don’t want anyone who wants to work at Grey.’”

Flash forward to 2013. Grey won 20 out of 22 pitches last year, while its client retention was 95 percent (almost unheard of in this day and age). It added 175 people and increased revenue over 18 percent.

How did they do it? This is where the exception proves the rule. They effectively reinvented themselves to be more relevant to contemporary client needs. Ad Age asked Grey CEO, Jim Heekin, about his strategy. Here is his five-point plan to improve the agency:

  1. Develop a "creative first" culture.
  2. Employ "radical collaboration."
  3. Develop "swagger."
  4. Broaden offerings with "radical investment in digital" and shopper marketing.
  5. Relentlessly pursue the goals above.

Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks. Especially if it’s an old Grey dog.

Filed Under: general

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