The 2019 Outlook for Agencies: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Continued leadership changes and in-housing, but also unprecedented opportunity

What's the next act for Alex Bogusky and Martin Sorell? And will more advertisers make more humanitarian campaigns like this work from REI? Sources: MDC Partners, Getty Images, REI

2018 was anything but dull for the ad-agency world. One could argue that it was a year defined by industry whiplash.

In one moment, we heard about another agency leader being shown the door. The next, Martin Sorrell reemerged, thumbing his nose at the advertising establishment he helped create. Then Alex Bogusky got back in the mix (and wants to wrestle Gary Vee?). In between all of that, in-housing, consolidation and sagging performance painted a reasonably bleak picture for the agency world.

But there were also plenty of bright spots—campaigns and creativity that addressed some of the world’s most pressing issues and proved that good ideas are still a powerful currency.

And amid it all, there was one timely, perspective-shifting reminder about the importance of agencies in the marketing landscape. “When you stop to think of what our industry can do, when you drop the shame of saying we work in advertising and say this is creativity,” said Wieden + Kennedy co-president Colleen DeCourcy at Cannes Lions, “[advertising] helps change people’s minds and behavior in a world that’s full of rage, addiction and misinformation.”

In other words, there’s a lot of good, bad and ugly in the agency world. Here, Adweek’s agencies team weighs in with what we see in each of these categories for 2019.

The Good

With a renewed sense of purpose, brands and agencies are getting more hip to the fact that social issues matter in advertising. To that end, we’re looking forward to them using their superpowers to spark positive change for issues around diversity, LGBTQ+, gender inequality, gun control, climate change and more.

As the holding-company landscape changes—and as brands move away from AOR relationships—the talent carousel is getting more crowded by the day. Yet the good news is that alumni from some of the world’s top shops are opening independent agencies and consultancies, which present a unique and rewarding opportunity.

Good creativity is still alive and well—especially from independents and international agencies. This year’s Adweek Agency of the Year winners prove that both agencies and clients retain a sense of creative adventure. Brands willing to take bold chances can be rewarded with beautiful, effective work that breaks through.

The Bad

Though digitally led agencies (including those recently merged) and brands say they value creativity, overly data-driven work will continue to erode the importance of intuition and craft, two pillars on which the industry was built. Additionally, the robots (including fake influencers) may actually be taking over the world, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of creativity.

The growth of in-housing will continue. But this isn’t merely about the work going away; media planning and buying duties living within brands and consultancies may cast a more prominent pall over traditional agencies.

Trust will continue to be a major talking point throughout the year. Holding companies were cleared of wrongdoing in the DoJ’s production investigation, but media agencies are still in the crosshairs, and 2019 may be the year that the law catches up with allegedly illicit practices.

The Ugly

We likely haven’t seen the last of the unceremonious agency leadership exits. Also troubling is the lack of complete information and reasons for dismissals, which means that people credibly accused will continue to work in the industry in some capacity. NDAs and other complications will make it difficult for the industry to truly come to terms with issues involving sexual harassment and assault.

Consolidations and mergers will probably result in more agency closings (but see above for the silver lining). We will likely see more legacy agencies go the route of JWT and Y&R, with their names being retired or smooshed into clunky acronyms. Yet, in the plus column is the potential remarriage of creativity and media.

Agency culture, with some exceptions, has not improved. Morale isn’t exactly a strong point, and the continued lack of elevating more women and talent of color into the C-suite means that 2019 may, unfortunately, be more of the same.

The Big Hope

Is 2019 the year that we finally make progress on inclusion and equality in advertising? It’s unclear. Unless demonstrable progress is consistently (read: more than once a year) shared with the rest of the industry, the ceilings will get higher, especially for talent of color, and we won’t see their impact but rather their departures. That said, we hope that the issue will continue to get the attention it needs so the industry can move from talking to action.

Reporting by Lindsay Rittenhouse, Erik Oster, Patrick Coffee and Doug Zanger

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.