Consultant/Ex-Droga5 Producer Gets Real on Why Agencies Are Having ‘a Tough Time’

By Patrick Coffee 

Lindsay Slaby is a professional brand/agency consultant who also happens to be a veteran of various shops including AKQA, Cramer-Krasselt, The Barbarian Group and Droga5, where she was an executive producer.

A few days ago, she ran a fairly exhaustive LinkedIn post headlined “A tough time for ad agency positioning” that seeks to explain why, after speaking to “over 50 different US groups,” she believes that many people who work at American agencies are “[not] feeling comfortable in their current skin.”

It’s a checklist of concerns/complaints that will feel very familiar to the kind of people who might visit this blog as well as anyone who has ever bothered to peruse the comments:

  • Lots of talent has left the big agencies in recent years
  • Those agencies are now struggling to make themselves stand out in the marketplace
  • Search consultants’ pitch lineups include both very small and very large shops … which leads to some confusion
  • This fact is complicated by the growing number of “boutique” shops that don’t want to compete directly with their predecessors, instead taking their business piece by piece

The most obvious point is that the work has changed: more content at a faster pace and less reliance on that One Big Idea Campaign. But you already knew that. Slaby writes, “This has led to fear,” describing the existential angst as “palpable” at the big shops … and, we might add, in the comment threads on this blog.

She argues that agency leadership currently has one of two responses to search consultants: “get me out of here” or tell me exactly what to say to this would-be client, “because I really don’t know.” Seems that even managing directors are asking about “good jobs” at smaller shops.

This is all a bit gloom-and-doom, but Slaby goes on to list trends she’s witnessed within five different classes of agencies ranging from the mid-sized “we do everything!” operations to the activation agencies that trade reporters can’t quite figure out. There’s a bit of advice there too.

In short, she thinks:

  • Mid-sized agencies need to focus on the “integrated” point by highlighting communications and media planning services at pitch time
  • Smaller shops (which are almost always founded by veterans of the bigger ones) should emphasize their principals’ experience and expertise, explaining how they can help clients grow while remaining very compact and low-cost themselves
  • The former “digital only” banner ad/web design agencies have to decide what they want to be now that they’ve been forced to grow up: Activation? Production? Tech? CONTENT?!

We’re going to skip the activation agencies because they are completely impossible to cover, no matter how hard PR tries to work it. We do hear, though, that they are doing a lot better than the legacy shops because every big brand now feels like they need such a unit on the roster. Plus, live events.

The digital-and-creative agencies, though. They apparently need to figure out whether they want to make “experiences” or “products” instead of ads. We know where CP+B would like to go, given the number of “How Domino’s Became a Tech Company That Delivers Pizza” headlines we’ve seen over the past year or so.

None of this will come as news to people in agency leadership positions, but Slaby did a comprehensive job of summing up all the trends. It’s also kind of telling that almost all of the many responses to her piece come from fellow consultants, ad tech people and brand evangelists or whatever the hell they’re calling themselves these days.

So don’t worry, you probably won’t be going out of business at this moment! In the meantime, the stock image search results for “consultant” are exactly what you would expect, and they are glorious.