Rising from the Ashes – the new agency model

In April, Blair Enns was the guest speaker at a CMA Luncheon where he shared findings from his latest book Pricing Creativity, A Guide To Profit Beyond The Billable Hour. As a follow-up to that session, Blair shares why he thinks it’s necessary for creative agencies and entrepreneurs to rethink the way they hire talent and seek professional opportunities. In the following post, he makes a case for collaboration over competition and embracing platforms and workspaces that make it easier than ever to operate a lean, agile agency…in his opinion, the agency of the future.

In 1975, music writer John Landau penned the famous line, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” As someone who is perhaps a little too fond of a grand statement, I’m tempted to borrow from Landau and shout that I have seen the marketing agency model of the future and its name is Communo.

Ryan Gills, CEO & Founder outside Communo office in Calgary, AB

Full transparency: I have a bias; I’m an advisor to Communo and have a financial interest in their success.

But, regardless of whether this startup succeeds or fails, I am convinced the trends that brought it into existence speak to the agency model of the immediate future. First, let’s look at some of the large macroeconomic trends that are shaping the way we work and live. When you add them all up, the characteristics of a new marketing agency model become obvious, and, unless all your chips are down on the old model, it’s exciting as hell.

The Macroeconomic Trends Changing The Way We Work and Live

Positive-Sum Mindset Instead of Zero-Sum. 

While the market has changed, most interesting to me is the cultural change. The zero-sum approach to business that dominated early in my career seems to be a relic of people over the age of about 40-45 or so, while those under that threshold tend to think about competition differently. And the younger cohort is onto something because in today’s specialized economy, the economics of sharing—driven by a positive-sum perspective on business and life—are greater than the economics of competition, in which there is only winners and losers. Young entrepreneurs tend to have a more collaborative, positive-sum approach to business where the first question is “How can you and I come together to do something that has never been done before?”

Access Instead of Ownership

People of “a certain age” are driven to own things. It’s not enough for them to just be able to access them—even when the economics favor renting. Anyone only one generation removed from economic hardship sees ownership as an imperative for financial freedom. For people more removed from economic hardship—below that certain age (again, anecdotally I think the threshold is somewhere between 40 and 45 years old)—access is enough. Uber, Zipcar, Airbnb and WeWork are all built, in part, on this changing idea about the necessity of ownership. Again, some of this is being driven by economics but the cultural shift is undeniable.

Mobility Instead of Roots

A few years ago I hired, on a project basis, a video editor who was living in New York. A few months later he moved back to Paris, his home. He continued to edit our training videos on an as needed basis. Then he went to Kyoto, Japan. Then China then Kuala Lumpur, usually going back to France in between. Then back to New York. At no time did his travel affect his ability to do a job when we needed him. I’ve since encountered and even hired many young professionals whose lifestyle is similarly built around mobility and not roots.

Communo Agency Advertising Marketing Calgary
Ryan Gill speaking to agency owners inside the Communo office in Calgary, AB

Entrepreneurship Instead of Employment

Roughly one-third of North American adults are self-employed in one way or another and that number is projected to grow to be the majority of the workforce in just a few years time. Some estimates put the number at more than 70% of the workforce in under ten years. Increasingly, the state of employment is self-employment. I don’t look to Karl Marx for ideas or models on anything, but I cannot shake the thought that his prediction that workers would ultimately own the means of production is coming true, if not via the path he envisioned.

Flat, Agile Workforces Instead of Multi-Layered Hierarchies

Another trend lead by technology companies that is having significant implications on staffing everywhere. How many people under 40 do you know who are willing to devote years or even decades to climbing a corporate ladder? The good news is organizations are getting flatter, quickly, in response.

Gigs Instead of Jobs

Just think of how the Hollywood studio system of old, where all assets and talent were “owned” by the studios, contrasts with the production company model today, where independent contractors of all types of skills come together on a project, work intensely for a period of time and then disband. Now repeat across the entire industry: people coming together for a gig, creating value and community, then breaking apart to go work on a different project with different people, or to sit on a beach for a while.

Adding It All Up

The nature of work, and of work/life balance has changed. The workforce today is increasingly collaborative, mobile, project-focused, intent on calling their own shots, interested in working with like-minded people of complementary skills and not likely to enter or stick around in an organization of hierarchies and cost-cutting. Imagine a WeWork where everyone in it is running a creative, marketing or tech business, every one of which is a possible source of projects, a specialized talent for your own projects or collaboration. Instead of everyone being heads-down all the time, doing their own thing, there’s more interaction, more shared excitement, more deal flow. This is what it feels like at Communo’s Calgary compound. (They plan to quickly add compounds in all major geographic markets as soon as membership hits a certain density.)  And culture, in this new flex-scale model where all the pieces are always moving, is key.

Where do we go from here?

If I were starting an agency today, I wouldn’t. I would focus on my strength and perhaps build a small business around it and then build collaborations with other creative entrepreneurs of similar, complementary skills, coming together when needed, breaking apart at the end of a project, always experimenting, always evolving and always ensuring that my business was there to support my life. I would resist the need to own everything under one roof, to pursue size for vanity. Similarly, if I ran a large agency today that was struggling to find relevance, I would scale way down and focus on a few senior people to lead the client relationships, the creative vision and the technology directions. I would give proper project management skills the credit and compensation they deserve. I would build relationships with independent professionals who wanted to come work on interesting projects but who were not on the books full time. I would maintain the ability to swap out talent at any time, with every new project representing a chance to work with someone new (if desired) or old favorites (if desired.) I would focus on culture and relationships.

Let the old model fall. Let’s do something that’s never been done before.


A longer version of this post was originally published on Win Without Pitching.

Blair Ens Pricing Creativity
Blair Enns, Photo Courtesy of Communo


About Blair Enns:

Blair is the author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour. He co-hosts, along with David C. Baker, the podcast 2Bobs: Conversations on the Art of Creative Entrepreneurship. He is also the Chief Sales Officer at Communo. Based in the remote mountain village of Kaslo, British Columbia, Canada, Blair lectures throughout the world on how creative professionals can win more business at higher prices and lower cost of sale.