by Bogosi Motshegwa (@Thinkerneur) The world, business and its problems have become too complex for ad agencies.

Are advertising agencies still relevant? I’m not sure if there’s a straightforward answer but, based on how complex the business world has become, I doubt that relying fully on an advertising agency is such a strategic move, long-term. Ad agencies have their place in solving business problems — yet so do other industries. Depending on your frame of reference, experience and perception of the industry, your answer will be unique or aligned to what you know or believe.

My view?

Advertising as we know it (the industry in its current form – including digital) has reached a plateau and in time will decline, all things remaining the same in the face of current challenges. I believe that, over time, marketers will not see outside-of-the-ordinary value to invest in an ad agency alone (by ad agencies I include all other communication entities: PR, design, activations, etc).

Business problems have become complex; and people have become even more complex. If this is the case, could it be short-sighted to think that an advertising agency has all the solutions? With ad agencies naturally reluctant to collaborate, is the route of ad agencies a viable long-term solution? I think that to totally depend on an advertising agency for business solutions is unsustainable.

When a brand or marketer approaches a communications (ATL, BTL, TTL, digital etc.) company, the inevitable solution will be communications-based. Agencies hire art directors, copywriters, client-service people and other related specialities. When you go to a lawyer with a problem, you are definitely going to receive legal advice; therefore, is the same not true when businesses approach ad agencies?

Too open to confine

However, the world is too open to confine solutions to advertising. Tsepo Makate, a freelance creative, describes the state we are in as the “YouTube Academy”; he says that this is the age where anybody may do absolutely anything. The takeout here is not about YouTube or social media per se but about underlying principle, which is that incumbents no longer hold the authority or the solutions.

When looking at the recent Cannes Lions awards, the biggest winner was “Field Trip to Mars”. Two interesting things about this win are:

  1. It was not a brand that won but rather an idea or movement. Field Trip to Mars is an idea to inspire young people who could actually one day experience a trip to the Red Planet. There was no selling of a product. Instead, it stretched the imagination and possibilities of virtual reality by creating a group VR experience that needed no glasses, resulting in a shared experience for the young students.
  2. The collaboration that happened in the co-creation of the solution. A traditional agency worked together with aerospace company Lockheed.

This is the trend of the kind of work that needs to come out of ad agencies and the industry as a whole. Solutions produced need to speak beyond clever copy and beautiful art direction and add value and meaning to businesses.

Creating the upslope – four basic principles

In order for ad agencies to create an upslope and hit the incline, thereby generating a positive movement away from the plateau, the industry needs to think differently — we need to think differently about the problems we tackled and our approach to solving them.

  1. Changing approach

We are a solutions-driven industry fuelled by the need to meet deadlines; this, I believe, hinders our ability to come up with real solutions, based on identifying real problems. Instead of brainstorming solutions, ad agencies need to invest time in understanding the problem as, sometimes, the issue is not in communication but in different parts of the business, which may not be so obvious.

  1. Hiring differently (from other industries)

Hiring differently means that personnel in agencies will need to transform; agencies will need to hire unconventionally. Imagine an agency that has, in its human resource repertoire, a psychologist, an architect, a civil and chemical engineer and an actuarial scientist. It makes sense, right? Perhaps, to the still-traditional mind, it doesn’t but history has taught us that the best and most-relevant solutions have come from viewing problems differently. The more diverse a group in a boardroom is, the more exciting and relevant the solutions may be.

  1. Collaboration

Albert Einstein is credited with the saying, “A problem cannot be solved with the same mind-set that created it.” The principle here is that, if you want something totally different and unexpected, you need to throw in a foreign perspective; in this case, that means having unconventional minds in the boardroom.

  1. Owning business problems

Have you ever been in a boardroom meeting (or even in corridor conversations) and an advertising person says, “Well, that’s not our job”? This is one of the biggest disservices to the industry. We need to own our clients’ problems fully. As a “creative” industry, it is our responsibility to be more than just pretty words and pretty pictures.

I do acknowledge that there are ad agencies that are making strides in becoming more than just communicators and evolving into real creative outlets for business problems.

Still relevant — for now

Advertising agencies should offer solutions that speak to product design, service augmentation, and research solutions that enable marketers to know more about their target markets and industries, and thereby lead. The industry may achieve this by answering according to the four outlined principles above.

Ad agencies are still relevant — for now — but, for the long haul, they need to adapt to changes. ‘…Industry disruptions don’t come from existing players in any given market, but from some player on the periphery,’ to paraphrase Simon Sinek.

Who disrupted the taxi industry? Or the accommodation industry? Both were disrupted by unforeseen ‘competitors’. Who will disrupt the advertising industry? Either we disrupt ourselves or someone else will. If we disrupt ourselves and become more than just words and pictures, this will filter down to our clients, and we will help them disrupt their own industries, before they are disrupted.

• Article dedicated to Ben Wren, founder of Area 213 Communications and Area 213 International


Bogosi MotshegwaBogosi Motshegwa (@Thinkerneur) truly believes that advertising can really change the world. Every single day he tries to prove this. He shares his thoughts on the industry and sometimes has unconventional views. Bogosi is a committee member of AMASA, an Advisory Council member at Vega, and also does speaker management at TEDxJohannesburg. He is currently a strategic planner at McCann WorldGroup Johannesburg.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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2 replies on “Are advertising agencies still relevant?”

  1. Nice article, appreciate the mention. It’s important to evolve your business model to stay relevant but also have the most motivated team. We’re experimenting with the 30 hour work week, so far, it’s proving successful. All the best, Ben

  2. Hi Ben,

    You are welcome :-).

    I totally agree with you. What you mention regarding a motivated team and flexible hours is intensely critical. A motivated team will go the extra mile for the company, without being asked, and without expecting anything in return. An engage workforce is a powerful asset.

    Thank you for the feedback.

Comments are closed.

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