Whenever the business world experiences some major shift, talking heads emerge to soothsay doom for the agency model. Why, just in the past decade, the agency model has died and been reborn like a pesky zombie:

  • “The death of the AOR is near,” cried AdAge in 2015.
  • “Keep up with technology or close up,” warned PR Week in 2017.
  • “Social has dismantled the traditional agency model,” declared Sprout Social in 2018.
  • “COVID is killing the agency model,” said PeoplePerHour (and many others) in 2020.
  • “Digital agencies die in 2024,” the Wall Street Journal bet (ooo, top-tier coverage!).

Nowadays, it’s newsroom layoffs, AI’s emergence, the rising power of independent contractors, or any of a hundred reasons agencies are going the way of the dodo.

What’s common between these portents of doom is that each change in how we do business influences the value exchange between agencies and clients. Social media disrupted traditional communication channels. COVID disrupted the roles companies played in public life. Technology disrupted the skills and abilities we demand from account teams — and what clients want from trusted agency partners.

Through all of this, agencies either adapt to the value clients seek…or die (or, at least, fall behind the pack leaders).

The Agency Model Phoenix

None of this is different from other industries. Companies have to evolve. It might take a few months or a few decades, but eventually, the future comes for us all.

The agency model is just easy to pick on. You’re particularly sensitive to positive and negative industry changes, and it keeps that value exchange in regular flux. If margins are tight, you have to identify current value, anticipate future value, and provide services to exceed client expectations on both—and do it quickly.

So, is the agency model dead or dying? Nah, the model is fine. But agencies die when they get sclerotic. When they refuse to change because it’s hard, or it bucks “time-honored tradition.” Change is persistent, and agencies constantly swimming against that current eventually get swept away.

Staying limber as an agency requires a culture that champions activities like customer listening, new service experimentation, and proactive success management. You can’t wait for problems to arise; you have to solve your client’s challenges before they even know they exist.

The good news is that you can transform the pressure to change from a frustrating process into useful experiments that teach you quickly. For instance, if you think clients will soon need better thought leadership content that blends unique opinions with proprietary research, you can whip up a quick program, sell it a few times, and see where you land.

When those experiments fail, you dust yourself off and try again. But it’s in the failure that we learn the best lessons and what allows us to adapt our services to match what clients really need.

Be what your clients need you to be, and you will always be valuable — no matter your model.