Opinion: Perspective - Advertising's labels are no longer fit for purpose

Considering that advertising is a business of communication and naturally the home of excellent writing, the industry has something of a language problem.

We call some agencies "digital" (even though most of them are trying to be digital-plus-everything-else) and it implies all the other agencies aren't digital (when most of them are trying to be).

We call some agencies "creative agencies", and it implies all other agencies aren't creative (which direct marketing agencies, digital agencies and media agencies might take exception to).

We call some agencies "traditional", which in 2007, makes it sound like they should be pensioned off into some adland care home.

We sometimes even use the terms "above-the-line" agencies and "below-the-line" agencies, even though you'd be hard pressed to find a DM agency that isn't working in mainstream media or a "creative" agency that doesn't also do direct mail sometimes.

The traditional lexicon of the ad industry is breaking down. The old labels might still apply to a business' foundations, but most agencies of every hue these days are working well outside their old narrow confines.

The problem of labelling might, of course, be resolved should we ever see a return to the "full-service agency" model: that catch-all neatly sidesteps any requirement for further definitions. But if you believe the commentators on page 16 (and most of the rest of the industry, come to that), that's unlikely to happen.

Meanwhile, the best agencies are firmly pushing back the boundaries of what exactly it is that they're supposed to be.

What do you call Beattie McGuinness Bungay when its job involves inserting McCain Oven Chips into a play? Or designing airline livery? And it's not just the new, fleeter agencies that are stretching the definitions of advertising. Bartle Bogle Hegarty is promising a slurry of developments from its Zag division (which develops intellectual property), Fallon is designing packaging for Orange phones, branded content is becoming a given on agency reels (though there are still woefully few good case studies), while designing brand identities and architecture is increasingly fertile territory for all sort of agencies in the advertising space.

Our feature (page 26) has good examples of these discipline- and description-busting initiatives. And it's healthy to see agencies reclaiming some of the "intellectual property territory" the old full-service agencies used to occupy. Hopefully, this time agencies are being paid a proper fee/profit share/bonus for it.

The problem with the increasingly outdated definitions of agencies is that they underscore current payment structures, where price is paramount and what agencies do is all to often considered as a commodity alongside other corporate purchases (paper clips, car fleet). Now that agencies are breaking free of these definitions, there's a chance they can break free of the procurement department and use their capacity for unshackled ideas-generation to leverage improved remuneration terms.

The other good thing about the breakdown of industry labels is that agencies have more opportunities to engage with their clients at a more senior level than the marketing department. If you're working with a company on the development of its corporate identity, its livery, its store design, its brand development, chances are you're more likely to be working with the board than with the marketing managers.

This is crucial if the industry is to reclaim its role as a respected business partner. The problem is what the new labels should be. Writing Campaign articles will be tricky without any.

Please take time to read the supplement with this week's Campaign. It's a selection of the best papers from this year's IPA's Excellence Diploma. Should you have any concerns about the future of this industry, a read through these will set you straight.


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