As a global agency CEO for the last 15 years and former chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the evolving client-agency paradigm is always top of mind for me.
There’s been extensive talk in the news recently about how brands are redefining their agency relationships. From P&G announcing that they are building one dedicated creative agency stitched together with teams from rival holding companies to spark greater efficiency and cut costs to news reports to Johnson & Johnson consolidating its creative account with two dedicated teams from WPP & Omnicom, brands are laser-focused on redefining their agency relationships. On top of this, Ford Motor Co.—the original architect of the bespoke agency model—has put its multi-billion dollar account into review after WPP rebranded the agencies that handled the account.
This flurry of activity reveals how restless marketers are in aggressively driving change. Agencies have spent the past few years matching our clients’ energy with ideas of our own, including reconfiguring our organizations to reflect the emergence of data-driven marketing and advertising. This coincides with a growing consumer demand for experience-based brand engagement over the blandness of banner ads and other tired forms of messaging.
Agencies have made progress, but in order to truly drive client growth we must continue to lead with creativity—but now infuse that creativity with a leading role in data and technology and a new talent configuration to support it. We need to step forward as the lead strategic experts to help clients decipher the ad tech/mar tech landscape. We need to go beyond by investing in and creating our own proprietary technology.
As the digital advertising era announced itself, agencies took criticism for being slow to assert themselves. We responded by building trading desks and creating new, cautious alliances with technology partners. As can be expected, we went through our fair share of growing pains, but climbed the learning curve over time.
Now we are ready to take the next step toward fulfilling the potential of building proprietary technology. Technology like VR/AR can become a key tool for experience-based consumer engagement programs. Agencies also have the opportunity to build our own AI-based business intelligence platforms that can position us on equal footing, if not in front of, many of the consulting and tech startups that have emerged in recent years. Our proprietary platforms can serve as the real-time, active, always-on, customer feedback loop fed by first-party data that can inform every client marketing initiative on an omnichannel basis.
The omnichannel learnings we glean from that work for our financial services client can then be applied to our car and beer clients without any leakage of proprietary data. This cross-pollination of analytics should become a key part of an agency and holding company’s remit. Clients have typically hired agencies on their creative chops, relevant category experience, pricing and chemistry. Technology should be increasingly weighted as a deciding factor as AI-based predictive modeling gets better at telling brands where to spend money to get the best return. If agencies take control, it will disintermediate the slew of ad tech/mar tech solutions that drive up costs without delivering much value.
The coming decades will see algorithms’ influence on our lives grow in power and permission; it is vital to future agency success that technology be a unifying force in bringing key agency functions like creative and strategy together. Technology should be the new DNA of the agency and not the icing on the cake.
It’s true that clients and agencies are often publicly traded companies under immense margin pressure, but we need to work with each other to make the investment in resources and talent necessary for growth. We need to reconfigure the notion of agency creative teams that reflect this newfound importance of technology. Traditional creative teams should become married at the hip with, not just strategists, but more importantly with technologists. I predict this redefinition of creative talent will engineer the ideas that will emotionally connect with tens of millions, not just thousands. They will author the difference between intimacy and intimacy at scale.
The last few years have been marked by ugly headlines about consumer frustration with bad advertising. Consumers are responding with rising adoption of ad blockers and are angry with platforms like Facebook for not protecting consumer data with the vigilance they expected. It’s an exciting yet stressful time for marketers as they navigate the range of issues from consumer privacy to rapid technological change. The opportunity to truly create brand intimacy at scale is in front of our industry, and agencies have the opportunity to grab the wheel and drive.
Ultimately, agencies and clients are partners, and together we have to build out better, modern capabilities that will prove our ability to drive client growth. In turn, we can play our own growth game and not the current zero-sum game of stealing share from each other.