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Do Agencies Need to Think Like Software Companies?

March 11, 2011

I’ll be honest: I often find conversations about agencies and the challenges facing them fairly circular — not to mention predictable. Agencies need to change but change is so hard and wait a second! Haven’t we been having this conversation for years? That’s how they always sound to me.

At a well attended panel today titled “Do Agencies Need to Think Like Software Companies,” a bunch of really smart folks from our industry — Rob Rasmussen of Tribal DDB, Rick Webb of The Barbarian Group, Matt Galligan from SimpleGeo, and Allison Mooney and Ben Malbon from Google — discussed whether agencies can take a page from software companies to get closer to the idea of the “agile agency.”  And while there was plenty of intelligent, pithy commentary, there was also a lot of familiar sturm und drang about what’s wrong with agencies and why. They’re not fast enough or tech-savvy enough or integrated enough, etc., etc., etc.

A couple of takeaways from Malbon that did make me think included a theory that “agencies fetishize what they don’t know” — the next big thing that doesn’t exist yet — “rather than understanding what they do know,” that is, gaining full mastery across disciplines of existing technologies, platforms, etc. Agencies do, I think, pride themselves on leadership and always want to be on the cutting edge, which may lead us sometimes to plunge headlong into new territories when in fact we could be (perhaps more efficiently and effectively) making great use of things already at our disposal.

Malbon also talked about the software company way of “thinking by making” — avoiding long strategic development in favor of developing products and refining or killing them if they don’t work. While getting clients to agree to this kind of model may be easier said than done — exactly why some agencies develop in-house incubators, of course — there is something worth striving for there.

Overall, what I took away was an idea that advertising’s long tradition of making temporary things — the  “campaign” — means we’re not necessarily wired, as software companies are, to make things that are built to last, things worth making long-term investments in, things that can be iterated and scaled and adjusted over time. This may not be a new insight, but it is a relevant one. Could we have a bigger, brighter, better future as an industry if we shifted our mindset and tried to build things that last?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Burt Lo permalink
    March 12, 2011 2:14 pm

    Thanks for your candid remarks. As it were, yours are the first few posts I’ve read about SXSW and I find them refreshing and informative. Also, I’ve rarely put on the mindset of a “digital agency”, so the impermanence of ad campaigns is so obvious have read about it, but not something I’ve ever considered from a creator’s perspective.

  2. July 2, 2012 5:47 am

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