In addition to telling our clients' stories, ad agencies project those stories. More practically stated: we buy placements for the ads we produce. Yawn. No really it's not, let me explain...because I think the central challenge of organizing modern media buying is similar to the core challenges that all organizations face.
If you follow technology and trends in Internet commerce, you're probably familiar with Marc Andreessen's claim (plan?) that "software is eating the world." The idea is that software can automate and standardize most of the routine tasks human spend their workaday lives hustling over. This is the knowledge worker equivalent of robots on the factory floor, and it's supposed to be a good thing.
If it sounds threatening, think instead how this vision offers to free us to pursue what we're truly passionate about. But how do we get there really?
Personally, I'm not interested in waiting around for someone else to solve my problems. Look, if we're successful at finding our competitive advantage, the problems we face aren't going to be widely shared. From the perspective of an agency that provides targeting and ad placement services, the uniqueness of our process is exactly the innovation we bring to market.
The challenge of managing information is not unique to modern ad agencies. Each industry has its dozens of web-hosted app companies offering solutions to manage the deluge of data. I think most are misguided because most are never really a good fit for ad hoc, not-all-that-fixed processes.
It doesn't seem reasonable that a third party developer without direct subject matter knowledge could fit tools to the fluid workflows that digital ad buying shops face. They aren't direct stakeholders. And, what's more important, the distinctiveness of an agency workflow is inextricably linked to that agency's bid for comparative advantage; who would share that?
If software is going to take over the world, you can't hand over your own software. And if you accept a third-party solution and just accept that as your workflow, you've traded away any competitive advantage you might have.
So, what does that mean for the successful agency?