I have probably read and re-read Bryan Zmijewski’s post “Silicon Valley Killed the Design Agency” over fifty times by now. I have found the post extremely interesting; hopeful and terrifying at the same time. Bryan’s post is a one of many that have cropped since October 2014 that has clued in more than a few agencies to sweeping changes in approach and perspective for any traditional agency operating in today’s industry.

I see a very bleak future for advertising agencies that are still holding on to beliefs and tenants that sustained them in the 80’s and early to mid 90’s. There still lingers a tenacious virus of a thought process of what has worked in the past will continue to work in the future, with very little need or desire for innovation. Because of that mentality, a risk-averse nature has crept into the minds of agency leadership that sees innovation and new direction as costly endeavor that could threaten the established order of business. I have seen this in many settings, from design studios that have specialized too much and developed elitist attitudes to large, full-service agencies that their departments operate like fiefdoms; independent from each other and often view each other with contempt. Clearly, I’m painting a picture of misery and disgust. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating.

As I read through Bryan’s post, I imagine what it is like to work with companies that value design as an intricate part of their being, whether as part of the team that provides creative solutions or as part of the company working with solution providers. It’s not ubiquitous that design thinking and its value is understood and appreciated everywhere. I have discussed this issue with colleagues of mine and friends that work in other closely related disciplines. Often, we have to prove the value of design thinking to clients. That process isn’t an easy one when the learning curve for that education is very steep. I see Adaptive Path joining with Capital One as an amazing thing. Capital One sees the value of design. They understand it and appreciate it. They realize that it without design thinking, innovation and meaningful use will be sporadic at best and non-existent in all other likelihoods. A more abrupt change recently was the announcement from partners at Teehan+Lax in Toronto, Canada that they are closing their doors and moving on to Facebook. The company wasn’t acquired; rather just the leadership was offered positions. Say what you want about Facebook, but they can use all the help they can get. What these two instances show is a shift in thinking and values. The realization that design is a fundamental part of success is becoming starting to take root at global players.

I have read the posts on the recent events with Adaptive Path, the announcement of Teehan+Lax moving on, and the highly insightful post by Jon Lay from Hanno and I think about how these issues are on the forefront of the industry. They are exciting to read because it shows that design is truly integral to the success, longevity and persona. These types of issues are encouraging because of the good discussion they cause. The discipline of design and the industry built around it is fundamentally forward thinking. Unfortunately, the industry can also look back, through rose-colored lenses, and find times when things were simpler and continue to work in that era. That is the terrifying part, that this kind of mentality is still prevalent.

Whether you are in client services or forging the path in product design, traditional agencies need to change if they want to continue to have a viable presence in the minds of their clients and new prospects. Jon Lay of Hanno details this beautifully in his post about why the Teehan+Lax situation isn’t going to be the end of client services. Change is needed. It’s an absolute must. Full service, traditional model agencies need to realize that the future is smaller, more diverse and is focused on quality and meaning.

This change isn’t going to be easy for many. In fact, it will upset the status quo for some so much that it a decision will be made to not pursue it continuously Band-Aid the problems until they less about substance and more about being a service providers, no different from using Staples print center. Those that will endeavor to change will have to look long and hard at them to find what can be the most meaningful way to work.

January 23, 2015

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