Art & Commerce: High Anxiety

Ad Agencies’ Obsession Over Labels Is Symptomatic Of A Deeper Problem: A Collective Inferiority Complex
You know what really bugs me? All this fuss over agency labels. Not only is it a waste of time, it’s a good example of what’s wrong with the agency business. For instance: I recently had a conversation with an agitated CEO who called to complain that Adweek is still referring to his ad agency as – gasp! – an ad agency.
When I was uncharacteristically speechless, he took the opportunity to explain that his agency, according to its latest press release, had become a “global marketing communications company.” Oh. I see.
The labeling debate heats up when it’s about vendors vs. partners. It’s telling that clients refer to agencies as “vendors” more freely these days. And it’s a damn shame that shops have relinquished turf and clients value them less. Sure, they should try to regain respect. But does anyone seriously believe the best way to accomplish that goal is to focus on terminology?
Granted, “vendor” has become a dirty word, conjuring up visions of the Fuller Brush man – or worse, a low- cost provider of a commodity service.
Still, no agency has ever lost a piece of business because someone called it a “vendor.” And no agency will ever win an account because it fancies itself a “multifaceted, multitalented, multilingual, global brand architect.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
In this week’s News Analysis, Lee Clow shares his thoughts on the subject, offering a surprising definition of TBWA as a “highly valued, highly paid vendor.” (See page 22.)
My personal frustration over the name shame is that I fear it’s simply a symptom of a deeper, more disturbing illness: an industrywide inferiority complex.
Historically, agencies lack the courage of their convictions. When the going gets rough, compromise is not uncommon, whether it be concessions on creative or compensation. Now, it seems, agencies lack pride as well.
Now, we all realize there are more options for clients to choose from these days and that agencies should provide multiple communications solutions. “Ads,” per se, are not the only answer.
But that doesn’t mean an agency should go on the defensive every time a management consultant or a CAA comes along. You look more vulnerable than you are. These so-called interlopers can’t do what you do best: come up with brilliant ideas and smart strategies and communicate them in compelling and effective ways. You seem to have forgotten that’s a special talent.
So you have a choice. Agencies can continue to be their own worst enemy, making apologies for being just “an ad agency.” Or, they can try to recapture some of their lost pride. Frankly, I think a little arrogance suits you. You’ve earned it.
WELCOME TO OUR NEWLY expanded Art & Commerce section, where we bring together our existing editorials in one place. Each week, you will find Debra Goldman’s “Consumer Republic” and musings from a guest columnist. On the first and third Monday of each month, I’ll write a column. On the second Monday, other Adweek editors will weigh in. Finally, an expanded analysis from our financial columnist, Alan Gottesman, will appear on this page the final Monday of each month.