As 2019 draws to a close, I will hark back to 1859. 160 years ago, when The Tale of Two Cities is published by Charles Dickens. The book that opens with the infamous phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”.
It is as if he were writing about 2019 and not 1859.
1859: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
2019: Demand for all things digital is bottomless – everyone wants more; and yet, there is a ridiculous supply of cowboys and conmen. Pressure on price mounts as so much of the digital world becomes commoditised by low priced options.
1859: “…it was the age of wisdom…”
2019: With great skills and brainpower the excellent agencies can achieve remarkable results for their remarkable clients.
1859: “…it was the age of foolishness…”
2019: Naïve clients believe that digital is the solution to all their woes. Naïve agencies make ridiculous promises. Naïve young staff believe they should be running the agency. Naïve agencies believe that clients should be grateful. Naïve agencies blame everyone but themselves for their lack of growth.
1859: “…it was the epoch of belief…”
2019: Purpose is all the rage, as if having one will make you more successful. Everyone promises everything to everyone. Promises are two-a-penny and have become a meaningless currency.
1859: “…it was the epoch of incredulity…”
2019: If it is too good to be true then it probably is. With too much choice comes the ability to miss the blindingly obvious. Can’t those agencies that make fatuous promises will be found out.
1859: “…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”
2019: Each new platform or algorithm update offers a universal antidote to the woes of growing businesses. And yet the advantages they bring evaporate as new competitors and newer technologies emerge.
1859: “…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
2019: Running an agency is like riding a big dipper. The elation of winning the big client is quickly followed by two existing clients walking out on you. The elation of finding the perfect new team member is quickly followed by two of the team walking out on you. The elation of finding a quick fix to a big problem is quickly followed by yet another big problem. The light at the end of the tunnel is an express train coming straight towards you.
1859: “…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
2019: We have never been more connected and yet we have never felt lonelier. We feel that we should be in control and yet the outside world is moving just too quickly: consultancies buying marketing agencies, marketing agencies buying digital agencies, digital agencies becoming either more niche-focused or more generalist, new game-changing platforms appearing on quarterly a basis…
1859: “…we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
2019: Success seems within reach then suddenly it evaporates into thin air as some new rule of the game takes you by surprise.
And the key theme throughout seems to be the rate of change: In the 40s, 50s and 60s the business world seems to be reinvented every generation; in the 70s and 80s and 90s, it was every decade and in the 000s it was every few years. Now the business world seems to get reinvented literally every year.
Finally, I will quote from another 1859 book, Darwin’s Origin of Species. He argues that there is a gradual evolution of the species through natural selection. The concept of the survival of the fittest is alive and well and kicking as we watch agencies all around us going bust, being put up for sale or closing at a moment’s notice.
The reality is that today’s agency ecosphere is different from what we have seen in the past: it is faster, smarter, brighter, less forgiving, more ruthless… The rate of change and the sheer volume of information that we need to process, never mind remembering the essential skills of running a business, mean that only the fittest will survive.