The ad agency: what’s in a name?

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Mention ‘ad agency’ and to most it conjures up images of people dreaming up TV commercials. A chat with people outside the business involves explaining to them what exactly we do – some ask if we ‘specialize’ in any particular medium [outdoor, print etc.] and some others see us as crazies who dream up creative stuff. Of course there are negative perceptions of various shades – some see us to be the business of creating demand for ‘unnecessary’ product categories, which of course is not true. And then there is the classical ‘ubiquitous persuaders’ perception about ad agency professionals.

What we do for a brand or a client’s business is so much more than dreaming up weird advertising slogans or ideas. Perhaps a big disservice to the profession was in defining the business as an ‘agency’. The word ‘agency’ of the ad agency business has its roots in the advertising business starting off primarily as space brokerage or ‘agents’ to a publishing house to sell space. Much like an LIC agent, representing a corporation. As Wikipedia says: Around 1840, Volney B. Palmer established the roots of the modern day advertising agency in Philadelphia. In 1842 Palmer bought large amounts of space in various newspapers at a discounted rate then resold the space at higher rates to advertisers. The actual ad – the copy, layout, and artwork – was still prepared by the company wishing to advertise; in effect, Palmer was a space broker.

It’s a pity that no one bothered to define the agency business over the years specifically in order to give the profession as unambiguous name. Bankers are meant to be bankers, IT professionals are meant to be coders or geeks – but an agency as a representative of another business, even if it is that of a client doesn’t really do justice to what we do. A bit too late in the day but labeling us as anything other than an ‘ad agency’ [content creators’ or marketing service professionals] will not help the cause now. Several new categories of businesses in the related fields of marketing have evolved over the years – Event Marketing, Shopper Marketing etc., all with their roles clearly explained. But poor ad agencies have come a long way from being mere space sellers to partners in marketing, creators of brands, creators of advertising and collateral, media planners and so much more. But the label of an ‘agency’ has stuck. Ironic that we have not been able to give a correct definition and ‘descriptor’ to us as a business over the years.

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