Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Platform: When successful agencies start to offer more, successfully

I remember about a decade ago reading an interview with Rich Silverstein. He said he hoped Goodby would become more of an idea shop that could turn out screenplays and pilots as easily as print and broadcast advertising. This was pre-Subservient Chicken, pre-Web 2.0, pre-Titanium Lion. In a print/radio/TV world it sounded like they were a bunch of dissatisfied creatives who wanted to write novels and make feature-length movies.

But in the decade since, we’ve seen Transformer movies because Hasbro turned to the Creative Artists Agency, Crispin begin a bike-sharing program, and a presidential campaign win a Grand Prix at Cannes.

Now Creativity reports that this September, Widen + Kennedy will launch Platform, “a think tank and workshop to handle beyond-communications projects for clients.”

Sam Brookes who is leading Platform says evolving beyond advertising “could be anything from problem solving and social responsibility programs to applications for Nokia, or the evolution of Nike Plus. It’s going to be pushing ourselves beyond what we do in the communications sphere further into their business.”

And to get started, Platform is making a point hire non-advertising people like programmers, fashion designers, engineers, anthropologists and artists. Which is really what W+K did when it was just a small start-up.

Obviously, ad agencies need to pay attention to these kinds of developments. But I’m not sure that means agencies need to develop these kinds of appendages. Fallon began a great symbiotic relationship with Duffy Design, but that didn’t mean that the ad agencies of the future needed to be attached to a design firm. Similarly, Crispin’s acquisition of Radar Communications bolstered its design resources a couple years ago, and just planted its flag in Europe with the acquisition of Daddy, but that doesn’t mean that’s what agencies need to be doing.

It seems that when larger, successful agencies end up buying out or marrying smaller specialty shops, they do so to expand their offerings without completely changing the agency’s direction. Fallon and Crispin are still known for (arguably) killer print, radio, and broadcast. They’ve just become successful enough to become umbrella corporations.

So if I’m reading this right, this is what hypersuccessful ad agencies do:
  1. Begin by doing one thing, and doing it well (e.g., great creative in most cases).
  2. Grow in size and billings.
  3. See deficiencies in their offerings (e.g., digital, design, brand consultancy).
  4. Buy (sometimes organize) a smaller entity to make up for those deficiencies.
  5. Keep the new entity separate from the old/traditional one.
But the mistake most agencies make is to merge #4 and #5 into a different step that is “Decide we’re just going to start offering new services to our clients within our current framework.” That’s how decent traditional shops become mediocre traditional shops with mediocre digital/design/brand consultancy capabilities.

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