The Zen Master and the Un-Agency

Every day is a good day.If you work on the client side of marketing you will know that working with agencies can be a challenge. You will have a roster of agencies that you deal with – and many more knocking on the door offering one-off campaigns that just may shake things up (for better and worse). Perhaps you will have an agency of record who will handle the jumble of specialisations that are required to deliver results across a broad swathe of marketing activities. Or maybe you will handle this in-house with marketing, PR, communications, branding and strategy teams all being supported by their own coterie of agencies.

No matter which scenario you operate under, the problem, of course, is that our “audiences” – the customers who buy and sometimes love our products and services – are less inclined to engage with what we have to say. As Nielsen’s Trust in Advertising survey indicated, 78% of consumers are more likely to trust other consumers recommendations ahead of newspapers, magazines and websites. Furthermore, consumers are dividing their attentive time in ever smaller slivers – with the Pew Research Center indicating that we are becoming “news grazers”, spending far greater time getting news and information from online sources than TV.

What are we to do?

Sean Moffitt suggests that client-side marketers need to begin operating like a Zen Master, pulling together your own un-Agency. (Check his description of the different types of agencies for an amusing but also insightful look at this complicated world.) But what might this un-Agency look like?

It's a co-op of equal partners managed by a key client person – a zen master generalist who can pull the appropriate agency levers. The Un-Agency is a marriage of partners that play well together and stay out of each others shorts. It's a hothouse of many ideas that get dreamed up and actually executed. It's a spider web of leading marketing services specialist talent that embeds itself deeply in a company's operations. It is low on bureaucracy and "handlers" and high on "smarts" and "action". Less powerpoint, more insight. More collaboration, less arrogance. More customer/influencer outreach, less boardroom navel gazing. More sustaining value, less flavour of the day. Perhaps paradoxically, more brilliant agency partners not less generic ones.


While I love the IDEA of this un-Agency, it is exceptionally difficult to make this work in practice. All businesses are designed to make money – and agencies are no exception. Put two or three agencies side-by-side and there will be competing interests, egos and revenue targets. But there is no doubt that this type of thing is starting to happen. With agencies coping with the global financial crisis (and the corresponding drop in billings) by laying people off, more and more folks with substantial skills and deep experience are finding themselves in demand. And the smart client-side marketer can now more easily weave together a collaborative group of experienced practitioners without the need (or expense) of working with big agencies. There is even evidence that smaller agencies are employing the same approach to extend their capacity.

Is this the way of the future? I know it works for me.

3 thoughts on “The Zen Master and the Un-Agency

  1. Hey Gavin,
    Nice post! I love the idea of the Un-agency, but holy crap, looking at that diagram I can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed.
    Recently I was at a music conference in the UK called The Great Escape. As with all conferences there were people from just about every angle of the music business you could think of and some that you just never would. I was attending a seminar on digital strategy when it occurred to me that there were just too many people in the room. Too many people standing in between the artists and their audiences. Too many folk actively looking to exploit these two parties in any way they could while failing to realise that when it boils down it, they don’t really matter at all.
    Looking at that diagram I get than same feeling of superfluousness. Are there simply too many people in between your product the the people who want your product?

  2. Reminds me a little bit of the model that Laurel Papworth / Silkcharm put forward with her ‘Twitter agency’ (, use best practice individuals with different skills sets to come together without a lot of the jostling you normally get when you have inter agency set ups

  3. Iinttterrresting.
    If you don’t trust the people you work with, if you throw a bad brief at them then run away and treat them like monkeys then you won’t get results you need. If you really need to bring 20 people from different agencies to a briefing… surely something is wrong?
    Ego drives creativity. Why else would someone spend hours and hours thinking about something? The messy agency sandpit fights against this – it introduces too much noise, demotivates, distracts.
    Bob Miller (ex GM of Toyota Australia – I think; and uni lecturer) recently spoke at our agency and talked of the days where the CEO would be in at the agency at 7am asking ‘So how can we make money together?’ Miller, himself, would ask the creative directors and teams for the ideas they didn’t present to his own marketing team… or that his marketing team turned down.
    Now, CEO’s barely take an interest and a lot of marketing directors delegate this critical of business operations – creating demand, building relationships – to juniors.
    Many ‘big agencies’, I feel, are paying for the baggage from the 1980s high life and the ‘let’s pretend we do digital’ dot-com days.
    I’d love to see an un-marketing department diagram 🙂

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