What Madison Avenue Can Learn From the Valley

David Berkowitz is vp of emerging media for digital agency 360i. Follow him on Twitter @dberkowitz.

When agencies interact with each other, it can be a high-pressure, cutthroat business. Some of the descriptors that often arise are competitive, hostile and distrustful. Agencies within the same holding company are often the fiercest competitors. But what if all that changed?

Recent dealings with peers at other agencies have been collaborative, open and supportive, partially thanks to the formation of the Technology, Advertising & Startup Council, which I co-founded with Darren Herman, Ian Schafer and Mark Silva. While we’ve all cut our teeth in the agency business, I’m not sure any of us wholeheartedly identify with being ”agency people.” I have been with my agency for seven years, but calling me an agency guy is too limiting. When I’m doing my job well, I’m a connector of people and ideas, a strategist, an educator and an advisor. I’m not the grown-up version of the kids in the 2006 satirical clip, “When I Grow Up I Wanna Work in Advertising.”

I identify far more closely with the spirit of Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley. People with the Silicon ethos believe in collaboration. There is far more to be gained from partnership opportunities than there is to be lost from competitive threats. It’s the mindset that gave birth to open source and the Creative Commons. Darren nailed it in a blog post last spring, when he said, “entrepreneurs are idealists and agencies are realists.”

Accountability to clients has never been more important, and the pace of work keeps getting more frenetic. Every hour spent on TASC is one that’s not billed directly to a brand. Instead, it’s an investment in the future, a sunk cost for research and development. It’s a way to help startups provide more value to us and to our clients so that we’re able to do better work and get a head start on new opportunities. We can all learn from each other by sharing best practices on how we evaluate new technologies, gaining insights into how we handle knowledge management within our organizations, and introducing new technologies to each other.

The old model dictates that if I’m working with one brand, I’m not going to help someone at another shop who’s working with its competitor. The new model requires rethinking how we create value.

Through TASC, if I’m hearing about a great new startup but there isn’t a fit for my brand anytime soon, I’ll give a heads up to someone who can benefit from the relationship. Why? Because he or she will return the favor and give me a first-mover opportunity that I may be in a better position to take advantage of on behalf of my own client.

While the Silicon mentality is especially appropriate for agency executives working with new technology, it can apply just as well to people in creative, media, production, strategy and other departments. Silicon Alley and Madison Avenue once referred to distinct geographical locations and now span broader areas that heavily overlap. It’s time for the values to overlap as well.

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