When I look back on the year 2016, I cannot help but think of Mel Brooks' titular song from the 1977 film High Anxiety. It seems to me that our collective nerves were shot this year. Whether it was the final inning of the World Series, Election Night (and the months that preceded it), race relations, gun violence, Internet hacks, geopolitical strife, turning 25 and realizing that your best years are behind you (oh, just me?) -- to quote Mr. Brooks, "high anxiety, you win."
The advertising industry was certainly not immune to the uneasiness that pervaded this past year. 2016 opened with a public dispute over agency transparency when the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) objected to the premature release of transparency guidelines published by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As).
Six months later, the 4As largely discredited a report on agency transparency commissioned by the ANA and conducted by corporate investigations firm K2 Intelligence. In an interview with Campaign,ANA CEO Bob Liodice compared the situation to the Cold War.
Major marketers did seek clarity on the business ethics and practices of their agency partners. According to a September article by The Wall Street Journal's Suzanne Vranica, marketers like J.P. Morgan, GE, Sears and Nationwide had all taken steps to audit their agencies in response to the K2 Intelligence report.
Whether or not you actually lost a lot of sleep over frayed relationships between clients and agencies, it is a subject worth considering at year's end. The roles and responsibilities of advertising professionals are being questioned and also redefined. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the growing number of agency-like services now offered from media publishers -- specifically from print-originated publishers seeking new revenue streams.
An interesting session during Advertising Week in New York this past fall asked of panelists, "Is the AOR DOA?" After back and forth conversation on the nature of the agency and client relationship, moderator Robert Safian of Fast Company asked matter-of-factly, "What's the role of an agency anyway?"
Karen Kaplan, CEO of Boston-based full-service agency Hill Holiday, argued that the agency "needs to curate brand experiences," while Joy Howard, CMO of consumer electronics company Sonos (which is not a client of Hill Holiday's) disagreed, arguing that it is the job of the marketer to curate and the role of the agency to innovate and provide "strategic thinking" and "deep knowledge."
Howard did also suggest that you cannot offer blanket definitions on the roles of an agency and client as relationships differ. So the advertising industry could be playing a game of Whose Line Is It Anyway? where agencies and clients will continue to improvise and adapt to fast changing market conditions.
Or it's a giant game of What's My Line?, where a contestant attempts to stump the panelists on what he or she does to make a living. The cut and dried job titles of a Mad Men world are long behind us. An advertising industry professional could do well on What's My Line? Maybe you work for The New York Times but you are a Branded Content Specialist or you work for a platform and specialize in Client Solutions. (What's My Line? predates me by a lot of years but I've seen it on YouTube, and in the most fun celebrity segments, panelists were blindfolded and tried to guess the "mystery challenges" through a series of yes or no questions … but I digress).
The point is there is appropriate questioning on the line of business in which we find ourselves today. The very methods and ways we conduct business are transforming, explained Jack Myers in a piece for MediaVillage last week. This may make me anxious but perhaps a more glass-is-half-full-type person could see it as a wealth of opportunity -- change and redefinition are good.
Either way, here's hoping for a 2017 with a little less anxiety, or at least a lot more Xanax.
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