Long Live the Ad Agency

Bryan Wiener is CEO of 360i, an agency that made the lead from search specialist to digital marketing agency. Dentsu acquired 360i in January 2010. The shop is bringing on VCU professor Mark Avnet to head its internal education program, 360iU. Wiener talks with Digiday about the prospects for the agency business, why so many people were down on agencies, the trouble with chief innovation officers and the prospects for Facebook and Twitter.
The commonly held view is that agencies are far behind the curve when it comes to changing media patterns. Is this fair?
That may be true for some agencies that are stuck in the ’90s, but some agencies are too far out on the curve for marketing programs to achieve their clients business objectives. For agencies today to be relevant and drive value, they need to develop marketing programs that solve real business problems by hitting the sweet spot in the intersection of culture, design and technology. What I don’t hear much anymore is all the noise about the agency industry going away due to disintermediation. With advertising and marketing changing as rapidly as it is, brand marketers will need strong outsourced partners that are able to innovate on their behalf. The real question is how many current agencies will be able to adapt to this new world order.
Why do you think people were so quick to declare the agency doomed?
There was a school of thought  that technology was going to eliminate the need for “inefficient middlemen” between marketers and consumers. Clearly, the opposite is true as trusted advisers than can help navigate the sheer complexity of the landscape are in higher demand than ever before.  There was also a lot of legitimate criticism that many agencies were not well structured for the 21st century. But the best firms have adapted. I’m extremely bullish on the marketing services sector’s long-term growth potential as more investment dollars move from media into services and the landscape continues to fragment.
It used to be that agencies hired chief digital officers. Nowadays they’re hiring chief innovation officers. Progress?
If we all subscribe to the idea that technology is changing marketing, then digital and innovation has to be in everyone’s DNA if you’re going to move the needle for marketers. Technology is a driver of culture – if you don’t understand it, then you can’t become a part of it and certainly can’t integrate cross-platform marketing programs that will resonate with consumers. Since agencies are inherently structured around a distributed architecture of talent broken down by client teams, any capability that’s centralized with a guru or a chief is not going to scale for clients. That’s why the educational part is so important, both within the agency as well within client marketer organizations.
Facebook was recently tabbed as the new king of display advertising. Is it the new AOL/Yahoo, or is that a bad comparison?
As I tweeted last week as soon as I saw the eMarketer report, categorizing Facebook in the display category is fairly misleading. Facebook has created a category of social advertising that is a cross between search and display. The ad format is much closer to search while the targeting and environment is closer to behavioral display. There is no question that Facebook is the king of social media, and in fact, has created a parallel universe to the “mainstream Web.” While I’m a huge believer that earned media has more influence than paid media every day of the week, I’m also a big believer in the growth of brand display advertising as a high-growth form of advertising. Brand display advertising will evolve into an important distribution platform for marketers for content, conversation and commerce. We’re not quite there yet but the IAB Rising Stars units are a step in the right direction. Cross media measurement, of course, is still a huge obstacle that needs to be tackled.
Can Twitter ever become a big ad platform?
Ever is a long time. What’s clear is Twitter’s audience is large enough to provide the necessary reach in order to be a scalable ad platform. Whether or not there is an ad format that will be both accepted by consumers and effective for marketers is an open question. Facebook faced the same skepticism a few years ago with its ad platform due to constant comparisons with Google and they’ve managed to build a huge business, so I wouldn’t bet the farm against Twitter.

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