Seven Steps To A More Agile Agency

Editor’s note: Please welcome Nathan Archambault of AKQA in NYC to AdPulp. An earlier version of this article appeared on Maybe I’m Gravy.

The old advertising agency model, the one where Madison Avenue agencies took their sweet and expensive time, isn’t working anymore.

It’s time for a forced retirement.

Sorry, old model. The nature of the business has changed. Client relationships have splintered and the traditional methods by which agencies profited are shrinking or disappearing. Clients want more effective work and they want it faster and cheaper.

Agencies are left with a clear choice: become more nimble, flexible and cost-effective or fade away. As Jeff Goodby recently admitted, we’re past the time for quick fixes.

It’s time to build a more agile agency. Here are a few things agency leaders can do.

Reduce logistics.

Today’s agency doesn’t need the same departments that were once a centerpiece to the creative offering. Goodby folded project management into account management and scaled back in-house production, opting to work with more outside vendors. Other agencies have eliminated the studio department, instead leaving final design responsibilities to creative instead of to a separate department.

Ask your agency: What departments are redundant, outdated or inefficient?

Operate like a newsroom.

It’s time for agencies to get out of the meeting business and get into the making business. The old model has too much overhead, too much process and too many barriers getting in the way of the work. An agency should feel like a living organism with the sole goal of producing great work, and nothing else should matter or get in the way. Oreo operated like a newsroom during last year’s Super Bowl and we all know how that turned out.


Ask your agency: What can we do to get out of the way of the work?

Replace perfection with experimentation.

In the past, clients demanded perfection and the agencies that delivered it thrived. These days, experimentation returns more on investment. Google launches everything in beta and future updates are expected and (mostly) welcome. The important thing today is getting your product, service or campaign idea to market. Once people have access to it, you can gather feedback, revise and repeat. This is what successful startups like Instagram, Foursquare and Path do and it works pretty well for them.

Ask your agency: What can we make today and worry about making better tomorrow?

Hire doers, not thinkers.

Agencies used to be able to hire creative teams to sit around and think up big ideas. But teams that lack the craft to build the ideas they come up with aren’t pulling their weight today. They’re requiring the agency to hire someone else to execute and bring the vision to life. The jig is up, big thinkers: Being clever and having good taste is no longer a job. That’s why side projects are the new main course – they’re the work of a doer.

Ask your agency: Who actually makes things around here?

Cast for talent.

Interpersonal relationships and unique skills matter more than staffing plans. The need may be for an ACD-level copywriter, but it’s important to be open to creative solutions when filling this or any position. An agile agency wants to find people with the right mindset, regardless of whether or how they fit into a particular department or job title. With the right people in place, an agency can cast for projects, not staff for them.

Ask your agency: Are we hiring the best people first and determining their role later?

Deconstruct the process.

It doesn’t make sense to implement the same process for every project. These days, unlike when advertising was mostly made of TV and print, each project is different from the last. Michael Lebowitz, Founder and CEO of Big Spaceship, gives his teams a framework instead of a process. This allows each team, each operating as mini-agenices, to bubble up a unique process that leads to more unique work.

Ask your agency: Are we finding new paths to the end goal of creativity?

Integrate every department.

The different stages of any given project shouldn’t feel like a baton pass. The brief can’t spend weeks with strategy before being handed off to the creative department, and later to production. AKQA CCO Rei Inamoto believes that agencies need to combine strategy, storytelling and software in order to build emotional and useful connections with people. This means that creative, strategy and technology work together from the start, making each team more invested at every stage of the process.

Ask your agency: Is each team member a stakeholder from the beginning?

Maybe you’re not in a position to change the way your agency operates. But there is something you can do: you can join an agency that believes in the game-changing power of agility.

In this agile age, one thing is for certain: the inflexible will be left behind.

Previously on AdPulp: The Google To Adlandia: Be Lean And Agile Like Us, And You’ll Be Rich Like Us

About Nathan Archambault

Nathan Archambault is a Senior Copywriter at AKQA in New York. Check out his advertising blog at and follow him on Twitter at @nkarch.


  1. How do you suggest we afford to have creative, strategy and tech all working at the same time?

    • Good question. How resources are reallocated to become more efficient and productive is an issue that needs to be addressed. Agency leaders need to figure out the role of each team from the beginning and define how teams work together from concept to completion. From my experience, it’s different for every project.

  2. peter blakely says:

    Blah blah blah.

    The nimble, agile, do-don’t-think, make-then-fix Digital Ad Agency model you cite as the promise of our future glory is on the ropes my friend. You want to talk about a business model set for retirement; try looking into the cash cow that supports 90% of yours.

    Banner ads. The lifeblood of every digital agency.

    Did you know, the average web user is served about 1,700 banner a month.
    Do you remember any? I sure don’t.

    Unless they feature a huge pair of jiggly boobs, I gotta say, I can’t recall a single banner ad I’ve EVER seen. And I’m in good company – according to the Benway & Lane eye tracking study, most web users have developed a way to look at websites without even registering banner ads exist

    It’s called Banner Blindness. Google it. Then grab your testes cause the hits keep coming.

    The average click-through of banner ads is 0.1%. That’s a pretty bad ROI, my little Prophet of Doom.

    To put that into perspective, consider that statistically, you are more likely to survive a plane crash than to ever click a banner ad. Hell, you’re more likely to successfully climb Mount Everest than click on a banner ad.

    And that’s just the start. Because more than 80% of these clicks come from about 8% of internet users. That’s about the same reach as the homeless guy that leaves conspiracy flyers on my car windshield.

    And here comes the boom.

    Even that teeny, tiny 8% rate is wildly generous because about 50% of the clicks that come from mobile ads are accidental. You know what I mean. It’s when your fat thumb accidentally hits the wrong part of the screen when you’re searching the web for boobs.

    But of course you already know this. That’s why digital agencies don’t mention banner ads anymore. You guys are all about apps, right?

    Only thing is, there was that study that Android did into it’s own apps that found that the stats on their apps sucked worse than my high school prom date: 8 in 10 apps fail to reach 100 downloads.

    So riddle me this, Batkid: Why would a client ever want to spend the shit tonne of cash and time required to build something that statistically is unlikely to reach less people than have walked on the moon?

    So that sucks.

    But you’re a shiny toy. And marketing people are up against it. They want better results, for less money. And while the performance of your digital ideas mean you’re more likely to be struck by lightning while winning the lottery than engaging with a digital ad, at least you nerds are cheap right?

    But here again, let the statistics be our guide.

    This time from a study by the American Advertising Association.

    Traditional agencies need an effective commission rate of 12%–15% to cover their staffing costs while Digital agencies need a commission rate of 25%–30%.

    Again, to add a little clarity; Digital agencies are more expensive than Traditional agencies. Roughly twice as expensive.

    This is probably why your boss wants his people to wear a few more hats. Strategists that can do creative. Creatives that can code. Developers that can…um…interact with other human beings.

    It’s not so the client can save a few bucks paying one guy to do ten things. It’s so the agency can charge you out for ten other line items and help fill the gigantic gap between how much you cost and how much clients are willing to pay. For now.

    I’m not sure your article proves Madison Ave will be forcing it’s Mad Men to retire. In fact, I’m not sure your article does anything more than bring readers to my epic response to it but I will say this – even by adland standards, the tenure of clients on your agency roster is short.

    You might say they have a nimble, agile concept of agency relationships.

    I’d say they have an inflexible attitude to getting ripped off.

    • Nice rant but AKQA hasn’t been in the banner game for years. Pick your targets better next time, Internet Tough Guy.

      • peter blakely says:

        … what is the emoticon I can use that indicates I’ve just thought about you, while simultaneously stepping barefoot into a mound of wet dogshit? Because it would go right…

        So again, let facts be our guide. As you know, one of the great things about working in Digital is that Apple don’t publish app download numbers, so you can really hide a how badly your piece of sh…um… innovation performed.

        But they do tally the ratings; so using that as a guide, let us see which of these kids is doing it’s own thang… taken from the 2013 Apple Design Awards.

        The Evernote app: 138132
        Yahoo Weather app: 28956
        Letterpress Word app: 18934

        The AKQA WWF app: 854

        Honey, I shrunk the userbase! I’m actually impressed you guys managed to find 854 AKQA employees willing to download this piece of sh…um…charity.

        You must be offsetting the sudden and unlikely loss of your lucrative banner business with some of that “Fuck You World Wildlife Federation Money”. Right. I mean that budget must have been, like….

        Wait a second…


        • Did you write these screeds during a three day coke and Jim Beam bender? You seem sort of insane even for the ad biz. Have a nice life, burn out boy. Burn or whatever.

  3. While I hear what you are saying, some of these suggestions just aren’t workable. Eliminate the studio? Do you really want your art directors sitting around all day re-sizing an ad for 20 different pubs? You won’t be able to keep them very long.

    Also our agency added project management not too long ago and it’s drastically improved our efficiency and throughput. With the model you suggested, the account teams were overloaded and not able to focus on client relationships because they were busy figuring out what resources the agency had available.

    So I see your overall point, many of the suggestions presented don’t seem workable to me.

    • Thanks for the thoughts Anson. I agree, not every agency can implement each one of these points. Every agency should take a different approach to becoming more agile; it’s up to each agency to figure out what works best based on their situation. The important thing is to be aware that the agency model that worked yesterday isn’t going to work tomorrow.