04/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Post Adverpocalypse: Agents & Facilitators in a New Era

How can people who've honed their skills with passion and vision contribute to the next phase of humanity instead of say, make another KFC ad? What we do now will determine our future.

History is not a continuum. Now's a time when history is showing its joints and bending. But which way?

I read this post on BBHLabs and I think a lot of people agree that ad agencies are no longer necessary, but we're all afraid because we'll all be out of work if we admit that everything we're doing now can not be stuffed under the umbrella of ad agency. (Well, I haven't been at an ad agency since 2006 but they are still a big part of my life.)

Agency means facilitator. We need a collective of people that work together to facilitate, mediate when companies fall into a rut, or find they have a problem they can't solve internally. Managers of development. Managers of story. Managers of communication. That is not exactly an advertisement agency. Ads are great (for the sake of argument). Maybe we'll always have ads. And there will be teams that make them. But I can imagine ad-making being more what it was in the old days: A copy guy and a designer type tweaking away at the typeface and the design of the thing, some ad-tastic team making more of those funny clever Superbowl ads. Ha ha, what a gas! But those guys come later, way later in the process. So lets put 'ads' over there for now.

So lets look at what agencies have tried to do the last few years. They've tried to pretend they are movie producers, product designers, art curators, publicists, gurus of the future, pundits, yet they still maintain a media buying dept, a media planning department, a 'creative' department focusing on those awards, brand planners ad testing and gluing up those research holes -- and the account people tap tap tapping away at their cubicles. I think it's pretty bombastic to claim to do it all and yet still be an AD agency. It's hard to continue along a path where part of your job is to convince the client they don't know their business yet you don't really take the time to step into their shoes in any real way and think beyond the old model. Most ad agencies are the old model but they pretend not to be. How can they tell their client to do something that they're not even doing themselves: Really getting their grubby fingers off the old rule book and throwing that thing out.

Based on what I've done when I have felt most useful at an agency (when I've convinced management to let me do my thing), this is what I imagine we could do if we were to start fresh. It would go something like this:

  1. Workshop the client. Act as therapist, teacher, nurturer. Facilitate them telling YOU about the company they work for. Clock in real hours understanding what it's like to be in THEIR skin and go to work every day. Why do they do? Have they thought about it? Maybe yes, maybe no.
  2. Stimulate the client's imagination. The VP of sales, the receptionist, the sales team, the CFO, the CEO, the guy or gal who does payroll, the brand manager, the engineers, the guys in operations, shipping ... you get the picture. Get people from top, bottom, side to side to come in and roll up their sleeves in smallish groups cutting through hierarchy. Be disarming. Take the corporate speak out of the picture. Find out what's under the surface. Do an ethnography on the client. After all, it's them that you are helping and one day you'll be gone. You are not creating an ad for them, you are making their business better.
  3. Consumer ethnography. Who's their target? Great. Is that all? Are you sure? Is that really the target? The only target? Now that you've workshopped the hell out of the client, you probably can respond to this with authority. Now go out there and be a part of the target for your dear client and witness without prejudice how people think and behave surrounding the brand, the category (or categories), the lifestyle surrounding that category, and insights into culture that at first glance seem to have nothing to do with the category or the brand but are so important in society that they might be a part of the brand that you never before imagined. Like social networking. Like multitasking. When those were big surprises way back when. Go in without arrogance and see what you didn't already know. Don't assume because it makes an ass out of you and me.
  4. Strategy Time. Well you've been doing it all along, haven't you. If you've been this involved and have not been a bullshit artist, you now know: your client is this. Your consumer is that. Throw out the rule book that says you have to write a unique selling proposition, that big idea one sentence thing that will determine the 360 approach of the brand blah blah blah. Those are for stable cultures and certain times. This is not one of them. Does your mom have a unique selling proposition? Does your best friend? Brand is the word for the public image of a company. The associations. These associations are part intangible, emotional and part functional. The company is the main thing here; What does it do for people? Why do they buy it? Why do they need it? Why do they trust it? And once you've determine that, have it chat away about the things its best at. Like a person. Dear Brand: be yourself. Know who you want to talk to about it and be articulate! Be fun. Be engaging. But don't be so fixed and immutable for crissakes.
  5. Make. I think you have to be an entrepreneur to be doing this job now. Not just a spin doctor. You have to be a problem solver because superfluous businesses are liable to die. You've sussed out the problem, challenge and opportunity. And since you're not an ad agency, the solution could be to make a new product or service, a movie, get into a different business that nobody ever thought of. One that fits strategically. One that works operationally. One that solves other company problems and considers revenue, not just the consulting fee you pocket until the next pitch. A manager to manage the creative capital and developmental aspect of a business in conjunction with operations, management, sales, and distribution. (Or similar, of course, depending on the business we're talking about).
  6. Chat away. What am I doing? I'm blogging. A few minutes ago, I was tweeting. A few minutes before that I was in the office kitchen brainstorming. Earlier today I was on the phone with the U.K. Yesterday I was on Huffington Post commenting. This morning I was texting, Facebooking, and emailing an invitation to Mexican night at my house. And I was checking out the FB groups I've recently joined. My boyfriend, meanwhile, is making a movie about his experience in Barcelona and he's climbing over fences to take pictures of areas people don't normally get to see. He's a location scout. I am (he is, you are) communicating, spreading, reading, participating, commenting. The company you work with needs to do all of that too. All products are content and content is ever flowing. Chat away. Strategically.
  7. Revise, repeat. A woman's work is never done. And a brand is never done. An agency with the smorgasbord of stories and storytelling techniques at its fingertips, or wily enough to hunt them down, is what a company needs as an advocate to help them find the right venue for communicating and the right products and services to offer.