The agency is dead

Technology and AI are evolving, the marketing landscape is shifting and the marketing agency is dead — or well, it will be. What does the new era of marketing look like, and how can you survive?

Chris Wright
6 MIN|June 10, 0100
The marketing agency is dead. This is the future of marketing agencies.

The marketing agency is dead.

Dead as a doornail.

Well, maybe.

You see, I think AI will change everything. And not just because everyone has got excited about ChatGPT, but because there are bigger developments coming that will really shake up the industry.

And yes (for those who know me) – I run a marketing agency. And yes – I think it’s on its last legs.

And I’m on mine.

The evolution of Fifty Five and Five

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Now, let me backtrack a bit. Because it's been a long journey, building an agency up from the ground. I’ve spent ten years building and growing Fifty Five and Five, and I want to give it the credit it deserves. We have fantastic clients on our roster, and talented people behind the scenes, and we’re not closing yet.

But (I can’t ignore this) change is coming. And although I don't know exactly when things will change, I can make a guess (I’m betting two years). What I know for sure is:

Marketing agencies need to evolve.

I’ve faced a lot of hurdles in my tenure here. It can be difficult (CEOs will know) sustaining and growing a revenue stream. Leading a company is lonely, and people expect you to have all the answers. But the marketing landscape is shifting beneath our feet, and it’s time to face some hard truths.

Two years from now, my agency will be dead (RIP).

The traditional model of the marketing agency is (and getting more so) outdated. It’s been around for several centuries (since around 1840) when Volney Palmer opened the first agency on American soil. Interestingly, he described his services using the word “agent”. This is almost prophetic now (I’ll come to this later).

Other agencies popped up in the late 1800s, and the format evolved as global media changed. Ads slipped from newspapers to radio and television, and (the latest model) are entrenched now online. Modern marketers are experts in social media, and the website user experience, and data analytics. It’s become very technical, but this will change.

In the last four years, Fifty Five and Five has experienced wave after wave of “new normals”. There’s been a disproportionate number of paradigm shifts – in a very small space of time. Covid pushed my workforce away from the office (and it’s been hard getting them back), the technology landscape has been under pressure, and a wider recession has made some clients tighten their belts. It’s been tough.

All these factors were short-term. Lockdown ended, tech companies will grow again, markets will recover. Recessions end (and we’re on the way up). Then, last year, a new obstacle sprang into my labyrinthine path. Although I had expected AI to materialize commercially at some point, I didn't expect it to appear this fast and by way of such powerful tools. In 2023, generative AI reared its head, in the form of content marketing and AI software – tools which can truly create novel, engaging content. And the world exploded.

I’m joking. The world didn’t explode, but it did shake a little. My world. The marketing world. For the past year, I’ve been trying to make sense of it all.

 

Recap key AI events that shook the world last year.

One agency, many agents

Marketing has always relied on people. Quiet creatives who can listen to client briefs and create work that resonates. And (we hope) exceeds expectations. Hard-headed strategists who can dive into data. SEO experts who drive organic traffic. These are fairly new, but essential, sectors within marketing. Social media posting, and particularly for channels like TikTok, is an even newer part of the landscape.

And it’s changing again.

Except AI is not just another tool in the marketer’s arsenal. It represents (and we’re seeing the earliest versions of tools now) a complete shift in the way we create and view content.

Consider this: a single AI tool can replace the functions of many roles within an agency. Copywriters, graphic designers, data analysts, even account managers to an extent can be augmented (and someday supplanted) by AI.

That’s the idea anyway. That’s the doomsday/ apocalyptic/ worst-case-scenario idea.

And it’s probably not going to happen. Not like this.

Not in this way.

AI will supplant human jobs, yes. I know this because it’s already happening. A March 2023 report from Goldman Sachs estimated that AI capable of content generation could do a quarter of the work currently done by humans. That equates to 300 million jobs lost across Europe and the US.

But there’s an interesting side to this disruption. Technology insurgents typically replace blue-collar workers, taking on administrative or manual tasks. In manufacturing, for example, factory robotics have taken over processes that involve physical labor. But in this case, AI is set to replace the “higher value” jobs – things which involve creative thinking, and strategy – all the good stuff, basically.

Imagine a marketing agency, with employees sitting at desks. Every employee has three or four screens, each with their own set of AI agents. Emily, a copywriter, has a content writing AI, an editor, a strategist, and a researcher. After meeting with a client, and delivered a whitepaper brief, Emily can feed the same brief into her researcher AI agent – and give instructions. The researcher AI knows that sources must be from credible organizations and dated in the last two years. And so, the researcher gets to work. Emily then turns to her content writing tool and begins fleshing out parts of the first draft. And so on.

Fifty Five and Five marketing team working at their desks.

Imagine, now, this scenario for each role. Michael, a designer, has his own set of AI agents. Anne Marie, a project manager, has hers. Employees will evolve to have new skills to manage their set of AIs: team management, ability to give directives, multitasking. Agency skillsets will evolve, so that all humans are in a type of management role. And each AI will be a specialist in their own subject, meaning tasks will be performed to the highest possible standard.

As it stands, AI isn’t good enough to replace humans. But I’m not talking about now – I'm talking about a future time when AI intelligence and creativity has surpassed that of humans. At this point, it’s reasonable to assume that a business will use a team of AI agents (copywriters, designers, strategists) rather than fully employ humans. Why? AI agents will be cheaper, they will be faster, and – I predict in around two years' time – the creative work they produce will be superior.

RIP the marketing agency

So, where does this leave the marketing agency? If marketing departments are using teams of AI agents, what happens to agency people?

Let's take a step back and review another prominent paradigm shift. Before the industrial revolution, artisans, including textile weavers, painstakingly created products by hand. Industrial machines could weave fabrics, for example, much faster and more efficiently than human handloom weavers. And so, reasonably, before industrial machinery tipped into the mainstream, there was significant fear and resistance.

The outcome was this. Yes, the handloom trade was impacted (significantly). In Lancashire we can see a microscopic example, with the number of weavers dropping from 180,000 to 30,000 in just forty years. This is (bear in mind) the 1800s, when the sharing of ideas and disruptive technologies was limited to word of mouth, and print. Now, AI will spread further, and accelerate faster, thanks to the internet and social platforms.

The outcome, zooming out a little, is that this trade has largely disappeared. In 2024, humans aren’t employed to weave textiles on a large scale. Manufacturing has supplanted humans’ role in this activity. And it’s likely that marketing activities will take a similar trajectory, with content writers and designers dying out, or certainly evolving, and AI tools stepping in. This depends on the rate of advancement, the quality of AI outputs, and the level of creativity the tools can achieve.

So, why two years? It’s not long – I'll give you that. A short timeframe requires a significant amount of disruption – and has gen AI disrupted much yet?

In my agency, we’re using AI – specifically Compass, our own bespoke marketing tool. Our clients are using AI, and Compass has buy-in from high-profile clients like TCS. And – this is the rippling, red flag – ordinary people are using it. AI has ventured into the mainstream very quickly. This, like the internet and social media platforms, signals something more than a supplementary tool. It’s a shift, and – though it’s hard to see now – marks the beginning of a new era in marketing.

The marketing agency, as we know it, is dead.

Two years from now, my agency will be dead (RIP).

And me?

I’ll be working with Compass.

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