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I love the industry I work in with a passion, but the truth is we know that the old game is over. Creativity is our heart and soul, but Don Draper is long dead and we know it.
Recent growth has come through digital, although the role of the agency is not yet defined as the complexities of the medium continue to evolve at pace.
A high profile Global CMO recently proclaimed that he doesn’t care about the complexities that agencies face they just need to fix it. I agree. But this is a wholly naïve demand to be shouting through the front door whilst your procurement team are up the back door re-arranging the agency’s staffing model.
We must be honest with ourselves. The intensifying scrutiny of costs, model and output are clear signs that our relevance and value are under question.
I confess though that I’ve rarely read anything on the future of the agency that’s inspired or convinced me.
The brutal problem we face is the problem of remaining relevant. How do we provide true incremental value to a client when many of our services have either become commoditized or can be easily taken in-house? The truth is it’s hard to find an indisputable reason a client should need an agency – creative talent and convenience seem to be the best arguments we’ve got. It’s maybe why so many clients are experimenting (with varying degrees of success) with going it alone.
The new agency model that’s going to make us relevant and valuable again isn’t a new way of organizing ourselves to do better “integration”. Yes if course it’s important, critical even, but I don’t think for a second that it’s the fundamental solve. It’s actually a table stake.
The new agency model that’s going to make us relevant again isn’t a new commercial model. I find it a troubling conceit that a different way to make money is going to re-establish our value to clients. Maybe in pockets, but not at scale. The notion of a profit share in a joint agency / client venture is definitely a big shift from where we are now, but not really a shift that speaks to our heart and soul.
Another seductive, but I believe flawed, idea is that we should becoming more like publishers than agencies. But hold on, haven’t we always been in the business of producing, curating, borrowing, distributing and measuring content. Let’s not repackage this and say it’s a new model that going to take us into the future.
The publishing industry around the world is also being disrupted and struggling to re-define itself. Yes we should be much more adept at creating and curating content at pace, but again, this for me is another big table stake and should not distract us from the main task at hand. It’s simply not the only answer to what our relevance and value looks like in the future.
My view is that brands will start turning away from high volume, rapid response content. There is little brand value in pumping more of this into a vast and fast-rising ocean of often superficial material. As a punter, I simply don’t want a brand of yogurt or after shave sharing its videos with me on Facebook.
Recently, I was involved in presenting some work aimed at a very specific customer segment to a senior global client. The feedback was positive, but they told us that our tone of voice was not how the customer would speak.
“It’s just part of the creative process” our creative director wrote to us in a resigned and somewhat sarcastic way after the meeting. Is it? Should it be? What gives the client more insight than us around how the audience speaks?
Her view is actually as valid and invalid as ours is, because none of us is the customer. We all work in marketing. And none of us has consulted the customer in developing the work to this stage.
This scenario get played out across the industry on a daily basis and sits at the heart of why our credibility, value and relevance has been eroded.
Digital or not, I’m convinced that the path to truly re-establish our value to clients lies exactly where it’s always been — deep in our creativity. But we need to lose our arrogance and involve the customer meaningfully in the development of the creative work itself.
This idea works against many of the traditions, myths and conventions of our current industry which is likely why no one has seriously attempted to do this at scale.
Agencies are great at creating, nurturing and crafting ideas — ensuring they build a client’s brand and business in just the right way.
But only the customer knows how they see the world, what they buy into, find cool, want to connect with, experience and go on to purchase.
We need to bring the customer into the heart of our creative process. Bring the agency and the customer viewpoints together in the right way.
What if we developed a campaign from start to finish with customers involved all our planning and creative work?
Carefully crafted creative work, steered and endorsed throughout the development process by real customers.
Putting customers into the heart of the creative process has the power to sweep aside subjectivity, give the work true authority and in doing so imbue the creative agency product with real value to the client.
This is where we need to experiment, testing new operational models for bringing creative and the customer together. Because if we combine these in the right way we will have won the fight to re-establish our relevance and win back our soul.