What Does “Agency” Even Mean Nowadays?

What Does “Agency” Even Mean Nowadays?

Ask any marketer that question, and you may realize that the answer isn’t so clear cut anymore. Not so long ago, the word agency meant advertising; think big, fancy campaigns. But now, with a rapidly evolving media landscape, the digital transformation and the abundance of data, agencies are constantly re-inventing themselves to stay competitive and relevant.

As agencies, it’s important to be forward-thinking and provide solutions to tomorrow’s challenges. This is often accomplished by expanding our capabilities: We now do digital! We now have an analytic platform! We are now a technology shop! Before you know it, an agency’s capabilities’ page is a mile long and everyone is a “specialist.” Are we so paranoid about staying ahead of the curve and focused on “capabilities” that we have forgotten where our most basic, tried-and-true value lies?

With this question on our minds, we conducted a blind, third-party survey across marketers in the healthcare and life science industry. We wanted to pick their brains to truly understand where agencies fall in the current marketing landscape.

If you ask what the word “agency” means, it’s…


After noting a somewhat cynical attitude towards agencies in recent years, Burger King CMO Axel Schwan called for brands to re-examine what it means to work with an agency at the 2017 Cannes Lions Awards, saying, “…once we decide to work with an agency, we have a partnership mindset—one team.”

This aligns precisely with our findings. When asked what the word “agency” means, our participants noted the words “partner” and “team.” As one participant noted, “The term “agency” has evolved to become a fluent partner in maximizing strategy, craftiness, and creativity.” Marketers view “agency” as an extension of their team and not a production shop simply pushing out amazing creative and ground-breaking campaigns.


Marketers surveyed also aligned “strategy” with the word “agency” and focused on ensuring their agency partner understands their objectives and can create a solid strategy to achieve them. But, what exactly do they mean by strategy?

To define what strategy means, participants used words like research, knowledge, backbone and expertise. One participant even noted that it required an agency to offer the “knowledge, understanding and infrastructure to assist us in making sound, qualified decisions based on our industry and to give us the cutting-edge materials needed for growth and a competitive edge.”

Marketers want an agency that can take them where they want to go. A solid brand strategy can help them get there—but only if it is firmly rooted in a comprehensive understanding of the client’s goals.

If you ask what they need from an agency, it’s…


Seems simple, right? But, as with any productive partnership, there is a give and take required from both sides to ensure good communication and success. But what can the agency do on their side to uphold their end of the bargain?

Touting your creativity and capabilities in the initial strategy meeting and only keeping your promise of communication and trust within the honeymoon phase isn’t enough. Our participants cited words like “reliability” and “trustworthiness,” something that is built through establishing a cadence of engagement and communication that goes beyond excellent customer service.

Clients want to feel that they are being listened to throughout the partnership. And, being a “team,” agencies need to uphold the “we’re here for you” promise consistently—before, during and after the planning process.

For this to happen, agencies need transparency into the clients’ true pain points and objectives. This quid pro quo must be sustained throughout the agency-client relationship, as true and effective collaboration requires consistency and the upholding of trust and flexibility throughout its entire length.

If you ask how do they justify working with an agency, it’s…


With an understanding of what the word “agency” means to marketers, we then set out to understand how they determine success with their agency. Hint: It wasn’t great creative, and it wasn’t award winning campaigns.

Given the ever-changing shift in marketing budgets, superior communication, integrated strategy and award-winning campaigns are no longer enough for brands to justify agency partnership to their stakeholders. Because when it comes down to it, what is a “partner” or a “strategy” without results?

Our surveyed marketers noted data-proven results as the #1 “gotta-have-it” indicator of success. And they don’t mean performance data from marketing campaigns or the number of likes or engagement from a social campaign. They mean results that impact their bottom line and the growth of their business.

What does this mean for 2018?

With brand-planning season upon us, it’s important for agencies and brands to reassess what it means to support one another as strategic partners. As we are invited to participate in strategic planning sessions for 2018, we should challenge ourselves to not only think outside the box in terms of tactical strategies, but remember to always come back to the core values marketers need from an agency: partnership, strategy, communication and results.

As we look upon 2018, let’s not focus on reinventing ourselves to stay competitive. Let’s push ourselves to ensure the core values are implemented into everything we do to meet and exceed the marketers’ expectation of “agency.”

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