Farewell, Mad Men: Meet the new agency model

When we hear the phrase “ad agency,” a few pop-culture stereotypes likely come to mind: the dapper account lead, taking clients out for martini lunches. The beleaguered creative team, chain-smoking, working till all hours of the night. Sadly, there’s a large degree of truth to these clichés. And while there’s something to be said for martini lunches, it’s surprising most agencies still operate the way they have for decades—even as technology has transformed the business landscape around them. Now, like the taxi and hotel industries, marketing agencies have reached their own inflection point. A better way must be found. What if a system existed where creativity could flow freely? Where amazing work gets delivered affordably, and at scale?  I believe there is such a model. It’s called embedded marketing.

But before we explore this solution, it’s worthwhile to consider the problem. Why has the agency model had such a hard time evolving? One reason may lie in its relationship to creativity. Advertising has always been one of the ways a truly creative mind can thrive in a capitalist economy. Marketing campaigns provide a structure for new ideas, and offer the allure of recognition for success (measured, of course, by revenue). Yet creativity carries its own set of stereotypes. We tend to think of it as a form of alchemy, something best done in solitude—ideally in an attic or mountain cabin, if one’s handy. And so the traditional agency model emerges: The client briefs the agency, the agency furtively creates, and then everyone reconvenes for the “big reveal.”

That’s when the trouble begins.

Sometimes it all works out, of course—the client weeps at the brilliance of the concept, the ads run globally, the money pours in. In today’s market, however, this would be the exception, not the rule. Instead, what usually happens is that the agency discovers they’re misaligned with the client’s ask or expectations. Or (more and more frequently) the agency didn’t have the necessary understanding of the client’s infrastructure or market to craft a truly effective campaign. Maybe a key strategy changed. The competitor did the unexpected. The customer database can’t be segmented. In today’s world of integrated systems and big data, opportunities for error are rampant—and the cloistered agency just can’t keep up.

Advertising has always been one of the ways a truly creative mind can thrive in a capitalist economy.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” 

– Louis Pasteur

This is the landscape we found ourselves in five years ago, when we founded Firewood Marketing. No one was at fault, but no one was happy. I knew there had to be a better way. I also knew that to find the solution, we’d need to give up all of our assumptions about what an agency should look like—and how good ideas are made. So we did. And in the process, the embedded marketing model naturally emerged.

In this system, staff are embedded at the client site. They sit shoulder to shoulder with the client, they share lunches, they talk. And create. And revise. And talk. Along the way, they gain valuable insight into the client’s unique context—while maintaining enough perspective to do work that resonates. This deep engagement yields results that exceed expectations, integrate fully with the client’s existing infrastrastructure, and align with the latest go-to-market strategies. The process also allows the client to feel listened to and included—and like he or she shares ownership of any success. Best of all, it reduces the need for cycle after cycle of costly revisions. If an idea fails, it fails fast—before valuable resources have been appropriated. And because it’s safe to fail, it’s also safe to be wildly innovative.

“Fail often so you can succeed sooner.”

– Tom Kelley

After my first experiences with this model, I wasn’t surprised when more and more clients began requesting to work this way. What I was surprised by were the unanticipated opportunities the model created. For example, we often work with startups, where most resources go to engineering. Typically, it’s when the product team feels confident enough to start marketing that they realize their senior marketers are already at capacity. Hiring quality employees takes time, so a full agency is usually brought in—even though it’s costly and time-consuming, and there’s no one to offer direction. With the embedded model, we’re able to provide interim Senior Marketers who come with a full agency behind them—so programs can be executed without a major long-term commitment.

Another opportunity discovered via the embedded model is one that more mature companies regularly face: scale. For example, when we collaborate with companies like Airbnb, we’ll find marketing humming along at a steady clip. Then an amazing opportunity presents itself, and a massive program needs to be executed—fast. Again, the company must decide: Do they hire, or engage a full-service agency? Hiring for a program that will be completed in 3 or 6 months is hard to justify—but so is signing on for minimum contracts with all the bells and whistles. With the embedded model, a middle way emerges. We’re able to bring in a senior team of experts, leverage client insights, execute successfully and then—we can leave (although we’re usually asked to stick around).

With the embedded model, we’re able to provide interim Senior Marketers who come with a full agency behind them

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

– John Cage

The success we’ve seen with this new model not only confirms that the old way is unsustainable—it also gives me hope for the future of advertising. In today’s economy, technology is transforming even our most storied brands. Development cycles are shortening, products are increasingly personalized, and differentiation is critical. The need for effective marketing has never been greater. With the embedded model, I’m now confident that advertising can find its footing in this new world. I’m also comforted by the fact that this model opens a new door to creativity: inviting it out of the back room and the late-night hours, and offering it a true seat at the table. While many publications have validated the link between collaboration and innovation, I didn’t need to read them to understand this relationship. I see it everyday. It’s in the way our teams and clients interact as a community, and it’s in the quality of work that’s delivered. This work is the result of shared knowledge, deep listening, and an environment that allows new ideas to be explored. And maybe a martini lunch, every now and then.