Why Agencies Can't Deliver In the Age of Disruption

Disruption, like a breakout summer hit, is the song playing on every station.  At last week’s ANA gathering, the Masters of Marketing chorus could be heard singing in three-part harmony:

Disruption of media. Disruption of business models. Disruption of agency models. Disruption of the disrupters who disrupted everything in the first place.

Marketing’s plea for disruption is the newest way of making the same old demand: give us more creative thinking! The CMO’s of Mondelez, GE, TD Ameritrade, and even the uber-disrupter, Airbnb, all emphasized the mission-critical need for an endless stream of powerful new ideas in today’s fast moving world.  

Bring it on, say the agencies. We’re idea people. We’ve got your disruption.

No you don’t, says Pepsico’s Bradley Jakeman, who sees the agency’s ability to deliver disruption being held back by old-fashioned attitudes and models. He asserts that an agency’s ideas are only as interesting, innovative and impactful as the people who come up with them:

"I am sick and tired, as a client, of sitting in agency meetings with a whole bunch of white straight males talking to me about how we are going to sell our brands that are bought 85% by women.”

Apparently, homogenous groups of white guys do not a disruption make. 

An independent study of the S&P 1500 determined that diversity is the single biggest contributor to successful innovation. Companies that prioritized innovation have been proven to achieve “greater financial gains when women were part of the top leadership ranks.” Do today’s big agencies prioritize innovation?

In our business, rule number one is Know Your Target.  And, like Brad, we all know that 75% of women consider themselves the primary shoppers of the home; that women influence 85% of all purchases across all categories; that women control 61% of the wealth in the U.S.  From cars to computers to food to medicine, women are the target.                                                         

So why do guys run the ad biz?

The lack of women in creative leadership is attributed to a systematic lack of support for motherhood, mentorship, opportunities and even the work – women tend to get relegated to “women’s accounts” which don’t have the prestige of more high-profile accounts like cars and tech – and yes, Brad – Pepsi.  And when it comes to award show judging, gender bias is rampant. Guys win awards and get promoted – that’s the way it’s always been.

In the age of disruption, agencies must recognize the insanity of the disparity in the ranks. Women are as insightful, imaginative and passionate about ideas as their male colleagues. Women bring a depth of empathy and understanding and a naturally contrasting point of view – the very drivers of creativity and innovation. Agencies need to join the movement fueled by the fact that a dismal 3% of advertising creative directors are women.

Truly disrupting the agency model has to begin with new thinking about talent, and that means new thinking about women – as creatives, as leaders, as professionals, and most importantly, as consumers.