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December 22, 2002
Wall Street Ate Madison Avenue. Now What?

The Quest For A New Type of Agency

So, how many whiney columns like this does it take to reinvent an industry? Well, maybe this will be the last. Or possibly the first in a whole new series of whiney columns. But, at the very least, this column is the proactive one. This is where we will reinvent the industry together. A forum, an open invitation to do something different if you really care about it. We will propose solutions to the problem. But not without identifying it first.

First, a little background on the problem (just in case you haven't noticed the industry's transformation from meat to vegetable). The problem is fear. First, the fear of client dissatisfaction. Then the fear of the bosses' dissatisfaction. Then the fear of losing the client. Then the fear of agency decline. Followed by the fear of losing your job. Capped off by the fear of declining stock value. Boy howdy, that's a lot of fear. And it's hard to be proactive when everybody has at least one of these jitters.

To make matters worse, our clients see the fear in our eyes. It's gotten to the point that if someone asked, "If your client asked you to jump into a fire, would you do it?" The resounding answer would be, "How high?" Not to mix metaphors, but that is truly how wrong things seem. Our clients have us by the cajones, because they can threaten to take away our cash flow upon the pettiest altercation, and nothing is more important than money to our corporate parents. Should nothing be more important to our corporate parents than our product? Witness the Agencies of the Year in the ad publications: they are based on how many millions of dollars in billings gained in the last fiscal year? What is our purpose in this industry? Is it all business? And is all business in place to turn a profit? If the answer is yes, don't bother reading any further.

I'd like to see something different. And I have a, er, something different. Here goes: The not-for-profit agency. This could be an oxymoron to some. But think about it. Universities are not-for-profit, as are many other organizations that are in it for the "greater good." So why not advertising? Isn't it possible that advertising can be enlightening? Every time you've learned something because it was unavoidably interesting, did you remember who brought it to you? Most often, yes, I'd assume. In effect, ads could be, well, effective in this manner. Besides learning something, can the greater good mean making people laugh? It can, if the subject is one that needs lightening up, like taxes. And if the client is a shoe manufacturer, does the subject of the ads have to be shoes? No. We know this. I believe Nike's ad that portrayed children in the front row of NBA games instead of the super-rich was a social statement for the greater good. Or let's say the client is Crest. To do an ad that stresses the importance of smiling or condemns frowning could be seen as for the greater good. You may not believe it, though. Hey, that's okay. "Greater Good" is debatable. Aren't all ads debatable on some qualitative level?

This not-for-profit agency thing will never work, you say. You may be right. I know nothing about the legalities involved with the not-for-profit model. I do know, however, that under this structure clients could pay less fees and agency salaries could be more. This is because there would be no requisite giving up of profits to the holding company. Heck, there would be no profits, just beautiful salary benefits to employees, with agency improvements along the way, just so the company breaks even. Music to the ears of those whose salaries are currently frozen, eh?

In terms of clients, who will come? A lot of you know only ruthless clients, folks who would never embrace a greater good. But progressive-minded companies with social and personal betterment operatives do exist. Think about the Ben & Jerry'ses, or the Targets. They may not make a not-for-profit ad firm their agency of record. They may just need a wholesome component for their overall media mix (read: "assignment work"). But chances are, most companies have little experience with this progressive concept and would have to defer to the agency to produce ads correctly within this model.

This is just the beginning. For sure, there are other ideas out there, likely more fleshed out than this one. But now it's all open for discussion. Let's say you have an idea for a cable channel that requires all its advertisers to use the channel's in-house agency for the ads that appear on the channel. For qualitative consistency, you say. You could purport that it would be the most-watched channel ever, based purely on consistent quality content. Let's talk about it. Send ideas, responses to Talent Zoo. By doing so, you will be actively addressing the problem. Because remember, the passive have no license to complain.

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After roughly 15 years in advertising -- at places such as TBWA Chiat/Day, Leo Burnett, Euro RSCG, and JWT -- Britt Benston now works independently for a few fantastic clients. He has also come up with and designed iScreenwriter, a highly functional mobile screenwriting application available at Apple's App Store early this fall.

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