“In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit.” Say these words to just about anyone aged between 30-50 and they’ll know exactly what, or who, you’re talking about. It is of course the opening monologue to the legendary TV hit series The A-Team, which ruled the airwaves throughout the mid/late 80s and set the scene for a billion playground disputes over who was going to be ‘Face’.
Amid scenes of intense gunfights (in which no one seemed to get hit), incredible car chases and crashes (from which everyone seemed to walk away), the monologue continues;
“These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The A-Team.”
Cue Flashback Scene
As a child of the 80s, I spent my fair share of time glued to the TV watching The A-Team (and Manimal, Automan, Dempsey & Makepiece, Magnum PI, Knight Rider, MacGyver, TJ Hooker, Hardcastle and McCormick et al), and I loved everything about it; the adventures, the explosions, the bizarre creations (cabbage-cannon, anyone?) and the repeated attempts to get B.A. on a plane.
At around the same time I was dimly aware of another TV series from the US, a little older than The A-Team, called Mission: Impossible. It wasn’t as easy to get hooked on M:I for several reasons. For a start it was much more cerebral and took a slow-burn approach to its storytelling. Secondly, there were few explosions, which was an instant turn-off for any VHS-loving, Walkman-generation kid. Basically it was about as far away from the Tom Cruise movies as you can get!
I’ve not watched either of these TV legends for years now, but recently found myself pondering both when an interesting analogy popped into my head. I was talking with someone at the Christmas Meetdraw event last week, and we were discussing the changes that have taken place to creative agencies over the last 10 or so years. It’s evident that change is afoot thanks to the 2014 Creative & Digital Economy Census, carried out by Matt Desmier. Looking at the results of the census it’s clear that since around 2000, creative agencies have started to fragment and focus on niche services.
Bursting The Bubble
As the dot com bubble swelled, “web design” agencies started to evolve into “full service agencies” as the demand for online advertising, search engine optimisation, pay per click campaigns and more increased. When that bubble inevitably burst, many of the agencies that went with it were reborn as niche service agencies. I think this was partly due to people hedging their bets, starting out as one-man-bands and focussing on their key skills. This in turn has created the landscape we have today, a key strength of which is its disparate, compartmentalised nature. A good example of this is search engine optmisation. Through the early to mid 00’s it was a huge business, with companies claiming to get you on the front page of Google in return for huge monthly fees and a raft of shady “black hat” techniques. With Google’s continual reviews of its ranking algorithms however, it’s become increasingly difficult to skew search results, and so the emphasis on SEO as a service that requires large teams of people to maintain is rapidly dwindling. Everybody used to offer SEO as a service, now less so, favouring instead to utilise the skills of a small group of specialists or consultants who don’t focus on a site’s placement in Google, but on the content of the site itself. Build it and they will come? Not any more.
So what has this got to do with American TV shows? Well, during our festive wine-fueled conversations, as we got onto the subject of agencies utlising outside niche service suppliers, my mind settled on an interesting analogy. The old model of creative agencies was rather like how the A-Team functioned – a fixed group of constituent parts, each with a general function and broad set of skills. Each mission or problem was approached in the same way, and the results were predictable. Entertaining I’ll grant, but predictable.
Now take the Mission: Impossible approach – for each job you hand-pick a group of specialists, selected for their relevant skills and expertise. The problem is mapped out early, and plans and fallback plans are set in place. Everybody knows what they have to do and the end goal is understood by all involved well in advance.
Now, I appreciate all analogies break down at some point, and there are many areas where neither connection is relevant, but it got me thinking. Increasingly, it seems many creative (and particularly digital) agencies are moving towards the Mission: Impossible approach over The A-Team approach. The sheer prevalence of niche service suppliers bears this out. In the Bournemouth area alone I can point you in the direction of small (<3 people) agencies and individuals that offer things such as:
- User experience research
- Copy/speech writing
- Project management
- 3D Printing
- Video gaming
- App development (that’s us!)
There are some suppliers which have always seemed to offer niche services independently, such as Photography, Video, PR and Marketing. Although even these creative stalwarts are seeing disruption in the industry, as camera drone operators, live motion capture (for video games), social media managers and more muscle in on the territory.
So there you have it – The A-Team is the old school way of running a creative agency, and Mission: Impossible is the new method. I know it’s not really that simple, and any attempts to boil things down like this are always going to run into difficulties. That said, I think there are some legs on this idea. I’m not done with it yet and I’ll keep working on it to see if there are any insights Jim Phelps or “Howling Mad” Murdoch can show us. I really want that to happen! Imagine basing your new agency vision statement around this: