Missing a layer: Ad world upper echelon spread too thin

The debate about [flawed] agency business models (Strategy, Dec. 17/01) is, I think, missing an important theme: It takes experience to be good at this. You have to see the results of what you and others like you do in the marketplace, see them a few times over years before you can say to a client with conviction that you know what they should do.

The debate about [flawed] agency business models (Strategy, Dec. 17/01) is, I think, missing an important theme: It takes experience to be good at this. You have to see the results of what you and others like you do in the marketplace, see them a few times over years before you can say to a client with conviction that you know what they should do.

We all know very well that agencies, including their creative people, don’t ‘come up with ideas.’ They have strategic processes, conscious or unconscious, formal or otherwise. They adapt from the patterns they’ve observed in the marketplace. They start from what they know. And they ultimately sell ideas that are brave in direct proportion to their own credibility. Which comes from experience.

The agency business – with the complicity of marketers – used to make sure that the gathering of experience was institutionalized. To work in an agency was to be part of a kind of apprenticeship process, and people earned the privilege of counselling clients.

At the beginning of the ’90s, a couple of ill winds blew. One was a recession that saw agency margins shrink to unimaginable levels by comparison to those of the decade just passed, and the other was the widely quoted but perhaps often misunderstood clarion call to fire the handlers. Agencies did just that, cutting costs by cutting layers of ‘handlers,’ but not going to the trouble to create a developmental replacement for apprenticeship.

And now, 10 years later, with the certainty of sunrise, we find ourselves with a shortage of properly trained people in senior positions. And with the cerebral part of the business consigned to the past, we find ourselves stuck in a culture that honours what’s entertaining because that’s all a lot of advertising people understand anymore.

The answer to the ideal business model is easy. The answer to an ideal business model that is sustainable, or that the marketing community is willing to invest in seems, on the other hand, to be a question so difficult to answer that nobody dares ask it.

Bruce Philp

Partner

Garneau Würstlin Philp

Brand Engineering

Toronto, Ont.