Innovation And Talent In The Marketing Industry

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When was it the business of a Marketing agency to do anything but service the needs of the brands it serves?

Times have changed. Times continue to change. The business model of the advertising or marketing agency of yesteryear continues to morph. In a past life, the agency would protect and covet its most senior resources, only to unleash them on the client work. These marketing professionals rarely had public personas and they most certainly were not Blogging or tweeting out their every thought and strategic insight. The business of the agency was to take the back-seat as the work it produced vaulted the client into the public conscience. At its most radical, some of the more progressive marketing agencies would invest in a lab-like environment where new business models and marketing strategies would be developed and tinkered with. As a service-based industry, moves like this were considered radical because the core revenue of the agency came from the ability to sell each team member as billable time, or to grab a percentage of the revenue generated on the media side of things.

Talent has become an issue. Innovation has become an issue.

There is still no shortage of talent in the Marketing industry and it continues to innovate (sometime through its own doing and in other instances through the success of newly introduced channels and platforms). While the Marketing industry did not invent Google, it certainly helped Google (and other channels like it) to develop and nurture their Marketing capabilities. The same can be said about YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc…. The challenge is that the Marketing industry continues to grow by leaps and bounds – and this is especially true on the Digital Marketing side of things. As brands shift more dollars to the Web, Mobile and Touch, there continues to be enormous pressure on the marketing agencies to produce high caliber strategies and campaigns. Us agency folk are not going to be able to capitalize on this shifting trend unless we have the right professionals in place and the right innovation happening (more on this here: Advertising Age – Holding Company Chiefs: We’re Woeful When It Comes to Talent).

The challenge.

The challenge is not the marketing agency’s desire to accommodate this shift. The challenge comes from a lack of growing resources. While many of the better agencies are staffed well, there is an overall shortage of talent and it’s not something that the next generation of university graduates are going to be trained to fulfill. There have been a number of news items in the past month or so that point to a new/interesting trend. The modern marketing agency is not just about services anymore. The modern marketing agency is about turning themselves into a university and using its own revenue to stimulate innovation.

What does it look like when a Marketing agency becomes a university? 

"It’s a reaction to an urgent need," said John Boiler, a founder of 72 And Sunny in The New York Times Media Decoder Blog post, Los Angeles Agency to Start an Ad School. "Finding like-minded people to work in a culture like ours… We’re trying to build the kind of people who would flourish in our company, people who will be effective, well-rounded marketers." Instead of trying to poach the talent from another agency or hope that some university figures out the right curriculum and nurtures the right kind of graduates, Boiler and his team are investing their own money to build a school. Their internal communications school, 72U, offers, "10 months of projects, coursework and hands-on learning for tuition of around $10,000. The goal is to begin classes in July," says the Media Decoder post. They’re not the only ones. Recently, MDC Partners announced that the winner of their "Million-Dollar Challenge" for innovation in the Marketing industry was a proposed launching of an interactive media school called the Digital Works Institute. A new agency model didn’t win this challenge, a school to fuel the future marketing geniuses did.

What does it look like when a Marketing agency becomes an early-stage investor in innovation?

Marketing agencies like Rockfish Interactive and kirshenbaum bond senecal + partners have both recently announced the creation of new venture funds to help start-ups interested in developing innovations within the marketing and communications space. It’s not only a great way to get a peak at what’s coming next, it’s an incredible way of getting actual skin in the innovation game.

What’s the lesson?

So long as the clients don’t see these activities as taking energy and focus away from the development of their business (which – make no mistake about it – can be a huge issue), we’re beginning to see enough announcements like the ones mentioned above to see a trend towards an industry that is interested in much more than self-preservation. It’s becoming abundantly clear that the marketing and communications industry has a desire to not only evolve, but to thrive as our industry continues to fragment and digitize. It’s going to be interesting to see if these agencies can truly deliver on the promise of real education and practical innovation.

I’m keeping my finger’s crossed.


  1. I find it amazing the rate of innovation that we can apply to our client success.
    The Universities are just considering teaching social media – A class I’m in my first semester teach for public relations students at the local University. It’s a class they are just now trying to fit in (while keeping old school subjects that hardly apply today) – It should have been started three years ago.
    With the fast pace of new innovation I can see many more classes and topics that need to be taught to PR and marketing students now, but are years off.
    Because of this, we are spending more time training within our little agency of ten people. We find it is one of the best ways to develop marketing talent and innovation.

  2. Another great piece, Mr. Joel. Let’s hope the agency world, like the media world doesn’t grow at one end and fail at the other. Talent is wanted when it is cheap and malleable. But many decide it’s best to eat it’s old and get a new crop of fresh (cheaper) talent and call that innovation. Let’s focus on the goal – smart, bright, creative ideas.

  3. Mitch,
    Thanks for the perspective. My favorite line: “The modern marketing agency is about turning themselves into a university and using its own revenue to stimulate innovation.”
    You’re 100% right. Talent determines the success of every agency, and drives innovation within the industry.
    This is something we’ve been battling with for more than five years as we’ve tried to build a different agency model. We’ve consistently chosen to hire the best young talent we can find out of journalism/PR/communications backgrounds, and then train them in inbound marketing methodologies (e.g. search, social, content, web, mobile), which aren’t being taught in schools.
    Thanks for the insight.

  4. Mitch, what a great piece. Thank you. I am interested to know – has this thought now crossed your mind? Wherein yourself and Twist Image would set up some type of “school” to advance digital marketing learning for pros and students alike?

  5. Hi Joel,
    I wanted to chime into the discussion with my own perspective on this fascinating issue you have raised. As background, I am a MBA student at the Rotman School of Management.
    I have now been to a series of marketing and digital marketing conferences of late and as you have mentioned, I have heard from one to many agencies about their struggle with attracting talent.
    I have to say from the MBA side of the ledger, I find this type of commentary quite amusing, as literally 0 Digital Agencies have been on campus trying to reach out to today’s business students. There is vast demand amongst my colleagues to enter this field, and yet no firm has made an effort to engage with this audience that has grown up with digital marketing and social media–it is in our DNA. I find this really baffling?
    Furthermore, I have found from experience when students such as myself try to make our own inroads with the digital industry in Canada it has been met with lack of interest?
    There is a real problem with the Canadian digital industry when it is easier for your professionals to reach out to and work with American firms in this space?
    I hope this adds a unique perspective to the conversation…one from the talent side in Canada!

  6. I recently graduated from what is considered to be one of the best journalism programs in the country. We were told old by our teachers that our degree would be valuable in both journalism and PR. It has been proven to be valuable as it led to my employment at a PR firm here in Ottawa. However, while the program gave me excellent instruction and practice in writing (the reason why I was hired), it taught me little to nothing about the marketing industry. Everything I have learned about PR and marketing I have learned on the job from reading content online, in books and from my gracious colleagues who take time out of their busy days to teach me and correct my work. I am happy to hear that there are some universities offering marketing programs that provide information that is up to date with the current industry. However, blogs have proven to be more helpful for me to keep up to date with current marketing trends. Most of us only go to university once and the information we learn quickly becomes outdated. Marketing blogs, on the other hand, are often written by professionals working in the industry, and offer first-hand insight on a day-to-day basis on what works and doesn’t work. We just launched a new blog (see website link) that intends to do just this. Like yours, our blog provides quick counsel and its authors can be hired to develop a complete marketing strategy, advise on specific issues relating to brining technology to market or act as an ongoing virtual chief marketing officer.

  7. This is a subject that goes way beyond just the Marketing industry. It’s about education and its place in our society.
    There’s an interesting contradiction in your post. First you say:
    “There is still no shortage of talent in the Marketing industry.”
    Then, this:
    “While many of the better agencies are staffed well, there is an overall shortage of talent and it’s not something that the next generation of university graduates are going to be trained to fulfill.”
    My guess on what you mean is that there are no shortage of “innovatively” talented individuals, but there may be a shortage of technically talented ones…Is that far off?
    I think the idea of Agency U is not a bad one, but I wonder if the University model is the one to go with, since that’s what’s contributing to the problem in the first place. It’s clear to anyone who thinks about it deeply enough that our post-secondary education system is flawed. Putting aside the funding/debt issue, the question is, are universities preparing students for their careers? If not, why not? The expectation that they should do so is bringing the universities and their students down.
    What the business world needs to do (IMHO) is recognize that the first 3-5 years of someone’s career are an investment. The old idea of apprenticeships comes to mind as a good model, more than Agency U. (Think legal articles, only with less of a beat-them-to-death workload) Universities can change curricula and get social media classes etc taught to students. What they struggle with is allowing students the freedom to apply those rules. University teaches the box. Business can then help people get out of the box.
    Co-op programs, and having professionals on teaching staff (instead of just researchers) is one way universities can close the “reality gap” with business. That will help business because of course, they are the ones fronting the cost for this 3-5 year learning curve.
    In addition to creating its own learning program, the Agency probably needs to reach out to the universities, and help them help students with the transition.
    Imagine that, it’s all about community and connection. Mitch, maybe you should teach a course at Concordia. You ask the right questions. Got that Socratic thing down!

  8. This is an extremely interesting, and oddly timed post.
    Recently, I’ve been grappling with a similar question myself – Personally, I know that there are so many businesses entering the digital marketing arena, that its becoming ever more important to define how we benefit others.
    It’s also equally as important to focus on the talents that YOU and your team have, and to not be “Seth Godin” (using a term you have used in the past Mitch), but being a remarkable YOU.
    Could this shift from “just an agency” to a University, place of innovation, ext be a giant leap forward for the digital world?
    Similar to you…I’ll keep my fingers crossed

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