Opinion: Why the agency of record model needs to die

Eric Segal and Brett Banker are the co-founders of X&O. Together, they have 50 years of ad agency experience as chief creative officer and head of service, respectively.
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Alyssa Nassner

· 4 min read

Darwin has never failed us, proving irrefutably that it’s adapt or die.

And given that the all-encompassing Agency of Record refuses to do the former, well then, death it is.

But out of faith in creativity and for the purposes of this philosophical exercise, let’s subscribe to the idea of reincarnation and to the belief that the agency model might perhaps be reborn as something more beautifully designed and beneficial to the ecosystem it belongs to. Like a ladybug.

Because right now, the always-on, one-stop shop is inefficient at best and at worst, a remarkably slow, painfully hierarchical, exceedingly precious, unnecessarily process-laden, talent burning, marketing budget devouring, antique. Oof.

Not to mention, committing to a single partner, even for a year (lately one and done seems to be the norm), simply ignores the idea of context, and the undeniable fact that it constantly evolves.

Brand leaders change (and with them, direction). The sales numbers come in. Culture re-defining events occur. And as these variables shift, so do a company’s challenges, agendas, and desires.

CMOs are wearing more hats and are under more pressure than ever to deliver outsized value with less spend. And yet, their AOR team, even if wildly talented and originally cast for their business, is almost, with certainty, not uniquely fit for the moment’s—let alone tomorrow’s—task at hand.

Clients pay monthly to retain a team whose size is apropos of their budget, but ignores the ebb and flow of their business, finding themselves inventing projects in slower times and starving for resources when it hits the fan.

They get a slew of FTEs (full-time employees) of varying acronymed levels, straddling multiple accounts with a chain of command that, by design, warrants charging seven to eight figures. It’s a bloated structure that’s soft in the middle: slowing processes, extending timelines, and eschewing the quick, instinctive thinking from the experienced and inspired leadership team clients first fell in love with. (They’re off managing careers and feelings and pissing out fires, with 6% of their time allotted to the business.) The hierarchy diminishes speed, clarity, and even creativity, breeding a precious hill to die on at every rung of the ladder.

And while a battle for every idea isn’t right, we’ve lost the war for the value of the idea writ large. Too many agencies give it away for little, or even nothing, in pitches and “jump balls,” hoping to claw back dollars by loading up on the backend. The vision becomes commoditized despite being potentially invaluable to a brand. It’s not to say the making isn’t of value, but the scales have tipped in the wrong direction.

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The model is a blight on the entire ecosystem. With nearly 40% of brands ready to dump their agency, CMO tenures in rapid decline, and talent fleeing agencies at an unprecedented pace, we are nearing the apex of industry inefficiency, attrition, and general displeasure.

So. How then do we fix this? AKA not die.


  1. Build the best team you can for your money: in-house, consultants, fractionals, agencies. Don’t spend it all in one place. There’s too much talent out there.
  2. To quote Liberty Mutual, “Only pay for what you need.” That doesn’t mean be cheap. Answers, big ideas, exquisite craft; those things are worth a premium. Nothing else should show up on the receipt.
  3. Stop asking agencies to give you the idea for free. As Warren Buffett kind of, but not exactly, said, "It's far better to buy a wonderful (idea) at a fair price than a fair (idea) at a wonderful price."


  1. See above: Stop giving the idea away for free! They’ll keep asking for it. Not only does it erode the value of the vision, but the value of the people who set it.
  2. Surround each challenge with the appropriate talent. Problems are best solved by those best suited for them, not who’s available.
  3. Lose some layers. Unlike a dip, seven doesn’t make it better. It’s only more opportunity to poke holes, second guess, slow things down, and frustrate everyone.


  1. Trust the experts to do what they do. Don’t overcomplicate experience, talent and taste.
  2. Separate the vision and the execution. “If you create it, you make it” is a kind gesture, but is it smart? Let the best visionaries vision-set and the best craftspeople craft.
  3. Start trading in days and weeks. It doesn’t take months to crack big, business changing ideas. By then everything’s changed anyway.

BONUS: For the love of Pete, why are there 21 people in this meeting?

Simply, let’s be faster, less precious, more discerning about who does what and reset the value equation to better reward big ideas and the people who have them. Then maybe, just maybe, Darwin will back off for a minute.

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.