Adapt or die: 2018 edition

What we can learn from the sudden closure of a one-time Seattle hot shop.

(Image via Facebook)
(Image via Facebook)

More than a decade ago while at MWW Group, I began working closely with the agency’s Seattle team on client and new business efforts. The downturn that struck many industries in the Seattle metro area circa 2008-09 had yet to occur, and it was clear that there was something great happening in the market, with Amazon (generally) at the core of it.

I was managing MWW’s digital team, and we were regularly seeing a few local firms’ names show up while chasing prospective clients. While outside of the public relations realm, one of the firms whose name was always on the tip of colleagues’ tongues was Wexley School for Girls.

Fast forward to February 2018, when word got out that Wexley would be closing its doors in the next few months for a variety of reasons. Was it true? Would this powerhouse agency whose talent was well-regarded actually close? As it turns out, yes.

Ultimately, a sea change in how creativity "works" was at the crux of the decision. Projects going in-house, budgets being "slashed" or "fragmented," and an interest in focusing on work the firm believed in were cited as primary factors. Most of us in Seattle and beyond weren’t totally shocked by those sentiments. We were, however, shocked that one of the supposed mainstays of creativity – digital and otherwise – seemed to be saying that the agency it had built (and adapted) over 15 years was maybe not cutting it.

All speculation aside, what can we learn from this? Work going "in house" has always been a challenge for marketers of all stripes. Startups grow up and hire a full team of communicators. Technology changes, enabling a $15,000 piece of equipment to be replaced by a device everyone has in their pocket. Education becomes more widely available and other scalability factors become the great equalizer, meaning your agency with a "social media war room" isn’t unique anymore.

It’s always about ensuring you are the change, instead of being run over by the change.

Wexley co-owner Cal McAllister noted, "I think the creative solutions are manifesting in different areas now. They're in products and start-ups, and these are marketing solutions and branding solutions, but we see a lot of situations where the marketing is a truly innovative feature of something. I think that's where a lot of the opportunities are. I would go so far as to potentially blow up the whole creative services model, not taking on assignments, but creating them."

Are marketing professionals simply chasing the shiny object all of the time, in a seemingly never-ending game of cat and mouse? Maybe. Is that really any different from the decades it took to go from print to radio to television from a communications standpoint, just at a breakneck pace, though? Likely not.

For my colleagues and I, what we learned from this is that nothing in our business is certain, even in times of economic prosperity. We also recognized that our dream of being creative on behalf of clients we want to work with isn’t simply a selfish concept, it’s one that we should want our client partners to feel, as well. It’s not just about having the right price, experiencing decent vibes in a "chem check" meeting, or proffering a laundry list of quality references.

It is, as it should have always been, about smart marketers – from the communicator working the phones to the war room crisis manager – understanding the strategies and tactics that make the most sense, always looking to better themselves, and genuinely looking to be a good consultant, no matter the outcome.

Any decent soccer player can tell you to pick your head up after receiving a pass. The ones that thrive are those that know how that ball is acting at their feet while they adapt to the ever-changing field of play around them.

Tom Biro resides in Seattle and develops marketing and communications strategies at Rusty George Creative in Tacoma, Washington. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached on Twitter @tombiro or via email at tom@rustygeorge.com.

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