Agencies now really are in a battle to remain relevant
A view from Ian Darby

Agencies now really are in a battle to remain relevant

Like A Fiery Elephant is the title of Jonathan Coe's brilliant biography of the experimental novelist BS Johnson.

Unlike Johnson, Naked’s John Harlow wasn’t a fat man, but the phrase amply describes his spirit.

Aptly, given that Naked launched in 2000, it also sums up the attitude of many brands that year. Perhaps infected by some real millennium bug but, more likely, driven delirious by the onset of the dotcom boom, start-ups (and some established brands) ploughed senselessly into communications, eviscerating suitcases full of venture-capital money on expensive TV advertising as they did so.

The majority of these brands adopted the most basic of media plans but, elsewhere, the rapid growth of comms planning, via Naked and several competitors that later launched, led to a sea-change in comms thinking. What happened next is well-documented (the assimilation of comms planning into major media networks; the failure of many specialist start-ups to make a go of it).

The latest changes will pose greater challenges to the agency model than the rise of comms planning specialists

Its influence remains, though. Consider the recent launch, or repositioning, of brands. It’s noticeable how complex, compared with their 2000 equivalents, that these are. Obviously, technology and the proliferation of digital channels is the major factor in this, but also thank comms planning for at least turning the dial a little in favour of linking creative and media once again and for pushing for layers to be added beyond the heavyweight TV and press stuff.

Comms planning, channel neutrality – call it what you will – combined with a belated investment in digital resource means that ad agencies have created broader offerings more suited to a fragmented media world. Yet there is still some way to go.

The latest wave of change will pose far greater challenges to the agency model than the rise of the comms planning specialists ever did. Fast, cheap, high-quality film production combined with audience scale available through free-to-access digital media channels provides an alternative to the big-budget, studio system offered by agencies.

This is both an opportunity and a threat. Some advertisers buying into this new model are the equivalent of high-school bloggers competing with the world’s best newspaper columnists and display no understanding of brand, message or audience. Others, however, are doing a brilliant job and bypassing agencies along the way.

Agencies will find a way of assimilating this model – many already are – but, for now, it’s being pioneered by bright, smart independents. You can bet, had he been 15 years younger, the fiery and ambitious Harlow would have been at the head of the challenging herd.