Agencies Can Act Like Startups, But You Can’t Fake Virginity

I haven’t really been too attuned to the stream of chatter coming from this year’s Advertising Week, but clearly, the transformation of the advertising agency itself is on a lot of people’s minds.

But one article that caught my eye is this Adweek report from a panel that contrasted tech startups and ad agencies.

The panel topic may have been whether ad agencies need to “think like tech companies,” but Jon Steinberg, president of viral marketing company BuzzFeed, suggested that the opposite question might be more relevant: Do tech startups need to act more like agencies?

Sometimes, startups that have big ideas about how they want to shake things up don’t understand how things are done now, Steinberg said. That’s why, when given the opportunity to speak at New York startup incubator TechStars, Steinberg chose not to give an inspiring speech about entrepreneurship—instead, he focused on the nitty-gritty of the ad industry.

“You can’t disrupt if you don’t know what you’re disrupting,” he said.

What’s key here is that ad agencies (or whatever you feel like calling them) will always be a reflection on their owners and management. Innovation has to be in the organization’s DNA and culture. Many ad agencies that have been around a long time are struggling with this. The larger, older, and more entrenched an ad agency is, the harder it becomes to make any type of shift. Because it’s not just about the philosophy–it’s about the process. Startups can build and adapt their own process much quicker, or take a leap and not use much process, flying by the seat of their pants.

What do I mean by “process”? The dirty work of getting the work done. Project management, billing, new business, how account management and creative and technology departments interact–the structure has to work for the agency’s goals. And it has to be a profitable structure. That’s not a sexy aspect of the business, but it’s one I’ve noticed many agencies have trouble adjusting to. Some advertising agencies will be able to provide apps, utilitarian tools that help brands reach customers, and other content, and some agencies won’t. The question is whether there’s room in the future for both types of firms to exist.



About Dan Goldgeier

Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. Dan is also a columnist for and the author of View From The Cheap Seats and Killer Executions and Scrubbed Decks.