Agency

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Note: This page is a stub: a placeholder until we can build out fresh text on a subject about which Doc Searls wrote a chapter of The Intention Economy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). The text below is the first few paragraphs of that chapter. ________________

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

As precious as life itself is our heritage of individual freedom, for man's free agency is a God-given gift. —David O. McKay

The Argument

Agency is personal. It is the source of confidence behind all intention. By its nature the networked marketplace welcomes full agency for customers. So, because the best vendors are customer driven, there will be many more ways for both vendors and customers to thrive in the networked marketplace, and therefore also in the Intention Economy.

Originalities

When we use the word “agency” these days, we usually mean a party that acts on behalf of another one—such as an advertising, PR, real estate, talent or literary agency. But the deeper original meanings of agency are about acting for ones’ self. Here are the Oxford English Dictionary’s relevant definitions of agent:

1. a. One who (or that which) acts or exerts power, as distinguished from the patient, and also from the instrument. 2. He who operates in a particular direction, who produces an effect. Of things: The efficient cause. 4. a. Of persons: One who does the actual work of anything, as distinguished from the instigator or employer; hence, one who acts for another, a deputy, steward, factor, substitute, representative, or emissary. (In this sense the word has numerous specific applications in Commerce, Politics, Law, etc., flowing directly from the general meaning.)[i] Here are the OED’s first three definitions of agency:

1. The faculty of an agent or of acting; active working or operation; action, activity. 2. Working as a means to an end; instrumentality, intermediation. 3. Action or instrumentality embodied or personified as concrete existence.[ii] The next three definitions (out of six) have to do with representation:

4. Comm. The office or function of an agent or factor. 5. An establishment for the purpose of doing business for another, usually at a distance. 6. The office of an Indian agent, or the establishment forming the headquarters of one. U.S.[iii] In the Intention Economy, liberated customers enjoy full agency for themselves, and employ agents who respect and apply the powers that customers grant them.

Work

The Age of Industry began in shipping and trade. Under the OED’s definition #4 above, the earliest examples of agency refer to activities in distant places. Cited are Jonathan Swift (1745), whose character would rather not be “at the charge of exchange and agencies,” and a document from 1800 referring to “foreign houses of agency.” The next definition, “An establishment for the purpose of doing business for another, usually at a distance,” cites examples starting with Reuters Agency in 1861. The first agency of government comes two decades later.

Business in the industrial world is complicated. Nobody can do everything, and that’s one reason markets work. Opportunity appears where something can be done that others are not doing, or are not doing well enough. Many of those opportunities are representational in the sense that agency, in the form of work, is handed off. We hire agents to work as extensions of ourselves.

Democracies too are representational arrangements. Democratic governments are agencies of their people. That these agencies should also have agencies makes sense.

But agency is personal in the first place. Having agency makes us effective in the world, which includes the marketplace. This raises some interesting questions. What does it mean for a customer to have full agency in the marketplace? Is it just to show up with sufficient cash and credit? Is it enough to be known as a good customer only within the scope of a company’s CRM system? That’s the current default assumption, and it’s woefully limiting.

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[i] "agency noun" Oxford Dictionary of English. Edited by Angus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Harvard University Library. (Accessed June 11, 2011.)

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

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Note: This page is a stub: a placeholder until we can build out fresh text on a subject about which Doc Searls wrote a chapter of The Intention Economy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). The text above is the first few paragraphs of that chapter.