Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, Weigh-In 1965 | Neil Leifer

On Agency Hegemony

Jules Ehrhardt
6 min readFeb 7, 2019

Jules Ehrhardt is founder of FKTRY, a Creative Capital Studio, former co-owner of ustwo, and author of the ‘State of the Digital Nation’ series. A health warning: This is going to be one of those designery analogies along the lines of what Biggie Smalls can tell us about UX research, but it is what it is.

History has proven the rise and fall of civilisations to be as inevitable as the sunrise and sunset. The Greco–Romans, Chinese, Romans, Dutch, Portuguese, and British, all in their time as hegemons, led the world culturally and commercially. Currently America, is doing a great job of ceding the role to China’s second turn at the helm. The cycle is simply the way of things and it is a cycle that applies equally to the rise and fall of creative agencies.

A defining agency hegemon of my industry early years was AKQA, one of the first ‘interactive marketing’ agencies. They out-thought, out-fought, and out-innovated the rigid and established advertising and marketing establishment. They showed everyone how it was done, how new technology and new ways of working could be applied. In doing so they became the standard-bearer that people wanted to work for, and to work with. Yet they ceded their belt long ago and today they represent yet another unremarkable brick in the wall of the agency establishment.

Back in the day, Frog would have been a fresh new contender on the scene, mixing it up with the establishment. You’re unlikely to get as bold and contrarian a perspective from them today as you would have in their first decade - that’s just the cycle of things. Just listen to the beautiful ‘fuck you’ attitude with which

launched new contender Frog onto the scene in the 1970s (You’ve got to love this guy - if I’ve ever had a role model)…

Years ago I remember some people senior to me talking about a studio in London called Oyster, which i’d never heard of. That’s because Oyster was an earlier iteration of LBi, which “everyone” had heard of. Fast forward… LBi goes on to become DigitasLBi, and eventually just Digitas. In ten years no one will have heard of LBi, other than those that experienced it directly. Amidst massive industry upheaval we’re about to see many established agency legacy brands get wiped from existence as the holding companies clean house for the coming war with consultancies.

There are likely many agencies that you and I have never heard of that have indelibly inspired and influenced our craft for a generation. Depending on our geography, discipline, passion and craft we’ll all have drastically different influences. As each new generation of talent takes the helm, the names and legacies of those agencies fade from memory, a familiar show playing on repeat…

First Act: “have you heard of Agency X?”
Second Act: “Agency X are smashing it!”
Third Act: “do you remember Agency X?”
Fourth Act: “Agency X who?”

Size Never Mattered

The size and scale of an agency never reflected its capacity to impress upon the annals of the creative industry. The Cuban Council (baby daddy to Facebook’s branding), Hi-Res! (experimental flash interfaces and experiences), Joshua Davis Studios (blowing our minds with Flash, the forefather of motion design), and Teehan&Lax (Paralax and Google Motion Hacks) all left their mark in some way on a constantly evolving industry.

Castles Made of Sand

At the time these new challengers offered a fresh, dynamic, and contrarian perspective…one utterly essential to progress. The confrontation drives the industry forwards, and in the process necessarily waxes and wanes talent, craft, and ideas. Over time their contrarian positioning, their perspective shift, becomes the mainstream. Eventually, like castles made of sand, they slip into the sea - whether via aquisition and assimilation, disfiguring growth, their stars burning out, or founders losing their interest and drive.

The fact that none of the aforementioned studios meaningfully exist today in no way diminishes their contribution. Their contribution is hidden strata below today’s landscape. It also powerfully and simply demonstrates that everyone has the chance to make their mark in some way, that we can all work our way towards a shot at the hegemon. That it’s not necessarily about resources should be encouraging to anyone seeking to make their mark…

A New Deal

The absolute inevitability of this cycle reveals a greater truth; That an agency is little more than a temporary vessel for people’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions. It is never forever, and once the castle slips into the sea, all that remains (and therefore all that is important), are the relationships forged and the work put into the world. And mostly, even the work fades out of existence also. That simple truth took me a long time to figure out. Time away from the blinkered, all-absorbing nature of studio life, time for the opiate to leave my system, time to cast off the self-protective cultural armor. It’s a truth you can take forwards into design of a new culture.

So rather than wallow in an existential funk, we should celebrate, acknowledge and embrace this process in the design of our companies, cultures, routines, and incentives. Failing to embrace change and renewal, working against the grain by establishing cultures that deny the natural order is what does the damage. People absolutely should board and disembark the vessel along its journey. Celebrate and embrace that process and in doing so, consciously foster the best alum network in the industry. Create the Goldman Sachs alum network of creativity and help seed the next generation of challengers, contrarians and upstarts. We should call time on cultural crack and ‘all-in’ atmospheres and resist fostering, or falling victim to, Stockholm syndrome environments. It is simply not that important.

In accepting it is not that important, you learn its true value, in the right way, in a sustainable, healthy, and more enduring way. Whilst this may all sound counterintuitive, I believe that rejecting false narratives, and acknowledging these realities in the design of our companies will in fact foster better relationships, better work, and a stronger, more enduring community. Remember, this too shall pass.

Liston was a reserved, feared fighter, a decade older than Cassius Clay, and had been world heavyweight champ since defeating Floyd Patterson in 1962. By contrast, Clay was a mouthy underdog who had won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

The Impetuous Title Belt Contender

The 22-year-young Cassius Clay impetuously challenging the reigning world heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, a decade older than him, in 1964 resonates with me. Bristling with bravado and confidence, he held absolute respect for the established champ, yet at the same time, held none at all. For me that’s the way it should be when it comes to the competitive arena of the agency world; Have as much respect for the established players as required, but hold them in contempt of progress.

When building my previous studio, I saw the leaders in the space with the same eyes… there to be studied and displaced. Comfort and complacency almost inevitably comes with size or success, meaning that the hegemon needs to be challenged. Too much reverence is bad for progress, so respect the legacy, but aim to be better. Personally I hope that people look at all I have built the same way; there to be appreciated, but also there to beaten and improved upon. If imitation is the best form of flattery, then iteration is the greatest compliment of all.

So be unique and be contrarian, rather than just another brick in the wall. Is the herd headed due North on the digital transformation trail? Make for the opposite horizon. Master and wield new technologies and ways of working. Size does not matter — everyone has the chance to make their mark, even if the vessel you sailed will one day be long forgotten. Someone comes along and wants to buy the boat you’ve sailed several times around the world on? Sell it and build another one!

The agency hegemon never reigns eternal and there will always be a time for a new challenger. The cycle always repeats.

Neil Leifer: The Boxing Photos

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Jules Ehrhardt

First Human @fktry / former owner @ustwo / founder @pledgepl . Design / tech / startup / crypto / life. |