Everyone I know who runs an agency and still talks to me (there are a few) is distraught over what's happening at their agencies.
Not the quality of their work.
Not the state of their finances.
Not even their "fighter-pilot" rates of attrition.
They're distraught because it seems that their modern workforce essentially refuses to come to the office. Though they've tried all sorts of inducements, incentives and mandates--ranging from free bagels to free donuts--their employees feel no connection to either the physical space of the agency, or worse, to the agency itself.
Of course, in true upper-management style, upper-management is blaming everyone but themselves. They're a bit like the employers of slave-labor and/or forced-labor in wartime Germany who then complained about the slovenly work habits of their starving, sick and beaten workers.
I think there are at least four management-derived causes behind the dissolution of agencies. (I will not use the word "culture" here. I admit to not knowing what it means in an office context.)
1. Workplaces suck. They're noisy. There's no place to think. There's no place to work with your partner. There's no place to be undisturbed. When I think of all the times I was intensely writing something while at Ogilvy--invariably on some stupid deadline--I'd say about five times in six, someone would stand obtrusively unobtrusively behind me, ahem ahem ahem, and interrupt me to ask when I'd be done and why wasn't I done already? Mind you, I was regarded by one-and-all as the fastest, most-self-directed person in the entire joint. But still.
When you have more people managing the work than doing the work, ahem ahem ahems result.
There is a basic humanity that's missing from today's workplace. Let's be simple about this. People need a barrier that separates them from the 'other.' Bernbach might have called that a "simple, timeless human truth." I'd bet it goes back to denisovians or neanderthals or even the 1940s.
But the prevarications of upper management had everyone, except upper management, working essentially in steerage. Remember? Open communication, haha haha.
There was a time, when prevailing wisdom in the agency business was that we spent more waking hours at work than at home. Therefore our offices should at least be as comfortable as home. Different sizes of offices helped establish hierarchy and, yes, prestige. They gave you something to aspire to. If Ken had two windows, I'd model myself on Ken and work to two windows. The semiotics of the modern workspace says that the assistant one-day out of college is equal to the ECD with 40-years of experience.
I wonder if people would return if they had doors again? And sofas? And some individuality. If they had someplace they could shoot the shit with their co-workers. If they had a nice room--with quiet--in which to work. Maybe someplace that's theirs where they feel they belong.
2. Agency brands have disappeared. With one or two exceptions, today virtually no agency stands for anything. There was a time that being an "Ogilvy writer" or a "Scali writer" meant you had a certain esteemed level of craft and taste. It was like saying you were a pitcher in the Dodgers' organization, or a slugger with the Yanks. Today the great value-destroying Holding Companies have eviscerated such meaning. They'll appoint Team Pablum--a collection of people from across the Holding Company to handle a high-revenue piece of business. No distinction between shades of grey or shades of red.
It's as if Giorgio Armani brought in someone from Old Navy to design your next sports jacket because they were available and owned by the same company. Soon neither Armani nor Old Navy would have a reason for being. Their very brands would lose whatever meaning they had.
It's hard, if not impossible, to have fealty for a company if that company has no fealty to itself.
3. Agencies treat people as interchangeable and disposable parts. Why have agencies eliminated contracts? Why does virtually everyone working at an agency (except, once-again, upper management) know that they're there based solely on the whim and caprice of a client. That you--as far as the agency is concerned--have no intrinsic value. Once "Michelle" sours on you (that could merely be because you're an older, white man) you're dead.
With the rise of "Fordism" in the early 20th Century, skilled jobs turned into unskilled jobs. Instead of building a car, you were tightening bolts. That devalued the labor market and allowed employers to depress wages.
The same has happened in the agency business. No team makes anything anymore. There are twenty creatives, nine account people, four project managers and six strategists on every tweet. We all do minor increments of a larger task. In other words we are a disposable part there to do one thing. Once that one thing is done--you're not needed. Regardless of how many other things you can do.
4. There is no training. Training begets loyalty. That's why universities like Harvard have $50 billion endowments and old people walking around wearing hats, tee-shirts, boxer shorts and onesies for their grandkids adorned with their Alma Mater's logo.
Training breeds loyalty two ways.
One, it helps the trainee feel a part of something bigger.
Two, it helps the trainer feel a part of something bigger.
It's good for the young--they're up-valued. It's good for the old--they're fulfilling an evolutionary role of imparting the wisdom of experience.
In both cases, training inspires a sense of corporate continuity. This place cares, it matters, it teaches. I'm proud to be a part of this community.
Before I'd blame the Millennials for the dissolution of today's agencies, I'd consider what the Holding Company Millionaire-ennials have done to it.
Just to go all hoity-toity on you, it all makes me think of a bit of Shakespeare. Specifically Cassus' speech to Brutus in "Julius Caesar."
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
That's right, dead agencies.
The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.