It's Groundhog Day. I sit across the table from clients. The clients change, but the conversation is the same. For one reason or another—people, technology, culture—their brand needs to change. If the business doesn't adapt, it faces a slow death. Or worse, an expensive, fast death, where millions of dollars get spent on the latest round of advertising wallpaper.
This old, dear advertising brief: How do we change without losing what made us special to people in the first place?
How do we reinvent ourselves without losing our soul?
I've spent my career in brand management hearing this question asked of me by clients as it relates to their businesses and brands. Now, as managing director, I spend just as much time asking that question of my agency and of myself.
Running an independent creative shop means more freedom. Practical freedom to make certain business decisions that aren't bogged down by process or agendas. Philosophical freedom to decide your identity as an agency.
But that freedom can be a curse for independents. Because of that very flexibility to craft your agency story, you can become the RFI chameleon. Doesn't matter the ask, we can do that. We can be that. Before you know it, your agency story has become tweaked beyond recognition. I know I'm not alone in having stared at a new-business deck thinking, "Is THIS what we want to say about ourselves?"
So begins the path to finding our soul again.
Our New York office started a new chapter not long ago. Built on the work of those who came before us, it was time to uncover some of the magic we had lost along the way. We talked and listened and argued. Put all our past highlights up on a board, puzzled over it for a while, and decided what exactly we were made of when we were at our best (and worst).
When you have found this—the soul of your agency—then you can evaluate the supporting parts around it that need reinvention. Or, in other words, the parts that can be flexible, nurtured or ditched altogether without breaking the essentials. Without this focus, you risk entering the RFI hamster wheel of hell where the phrase "Tell us what makes your agency different than the competition" makes you cringe.
I am lucky enough to have found a home at an agency where I've grown through the ranks. It's required a lot of hustle, faith from leadership, and yes, reinvention. Every day, I question how I can adapt to changes without losing who I am at my best. Can I make this decision today and still live with myself tomorrow? Could I tell my daughter about the situation years later and feel proud of how I handled it? Can I show people that thinking of my daughter in those very situations makes me an even stronger business person?
For me, soul lives and breathes in people, music, food, art. Have we lost the soul in advertising in the desperation to adapt? Trade headlines will tell you yes. But it's a bit of a cheap shot if you consider the hilariously funny, deeply human, brilliantly clever work that we still see each year. The soul is still there, and I have faith that this industry will evolve (willingly or otherwise) while keeping the magic alive.
I've come to accept that the Groundhog Day brief isn't going anywhere. Maybe the struggle to figure out how to change what you do without changing who you are is just a part of the human experience. If it is, that brief might be the one thing that keeps us all from being replaced by robots. So, thank you, dear brief. May you stay impossibly complex and frustratingly nuanced for years to come. We're counting on you.