Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Media agency of the future

By Jonty Fisher

I was skimming through a recent Advertising Age where an article on the “Future of the Media Agency” caught my eye. Various media agency heads were discussing their views on how their groups would have to adapt to a rapidly evolving and increasingly fragmented media space. Their answers surprised me though, and clearly showed the desperate scramble to redefine how the entire communications media industry defines how it delivers value to clients.
The media agency heads discussed how — in ten years time — the majority of them would become full service marketing communications agencies, offering a range of services that encompassed “anything the marketer required”. This reflects somewhat of a universal dilemma for the industry, where almost every specialist sector is trying to move into a full-service space.

So firstly, we have to ask, why?

Globally, the industry is in the very public throes of an acute personality crisis, founded in a struggle to accurately define the value that each player creates. The natural urge of each of these media agencies is to extend up and down the value chain, channelling David Copperfield in trying to blind the client with an array of glittering options rather than redefine how they answer a brief and solve the Chief Marketing Officer’s (CMO’s) problems.

A brief history

Consider how the CMO of the late 90′s and early 2000′s would manage their marketing. They would generally craft high level strategy, and then bring in their Knights of the Round Table (hat tip – Joseph Jaffe), typically their ad agency – as lead agency and brand custodian, – their PR agency, digital agency, direct agency, events agency, and maybe a strategy or market research agency. A proverbial bunch of cats in desperate need of herding. Now as Mark Sherrington always reminds me, there is no need for a lead agency if you have a lead client, but there are many of his peers that haven’t proven to hold the same mettle that he has.
As we moved further into the 2000′s, Mr Consumer became much more of a moving (and more empowered) target under an environment of intense media fragmentation, a rise in digital consumer connectivity and activism, exploding brand choice and declining advertising trust.
The bankable results of tried and tested communication methods crumbled and ideas didn’t fit that neatly into channel silos anymore. As a result, agencies found it harder to solve CMO problems, so the CMO’s in turn found it harder to marry their agencies‘ value with their agencies’ invoices. Agencies needed to adapt. Fast.

So agencies took the view that they could either do a better job, and even better, earn more revenue from crab-walking across the channel spectrum. This crab-walking took one of two approaches; either, for example, an ad agency would buy a PR agency and put them in an “integrated group”, or they would buy some big name talent in a horizontal skills space and launch their own additional channel divisions and integrate.

The problem though, lies in the fact there is no value in being “full service” or “integrated” alone. If the internal ideation, strategy development and creative conceptualisation still happens in silos, there is no objectives-based solutions to the marketing or communication problem, no equal share of voice in strategy development, and no true channel-neutral or channel-agnostic communications solutions.

Where to from here?

There has been much debate about the future of agencies in the media space. While the stock response has been a move to full service capabilities, there have been many who have argued that there will be a finite split between those who create ideas, concepts and strategy – the creators or idea generators, and those who execute those ideas, concepts and strategies – the executors. The thinking here goes that those with excellent strategic and conceptual brains will sit in one agency to generate ideas, and then hand those over to execution teams at one or multiple “do-er” agencies to produce and deliver those ideas to market.

The problem in splitting the two is that it divorces two parallel processes that are critical in crafting robust strategy; in that strategy should inform execution, but execution should also inform strategy. In the world of marketing and advertising, ideation doesn’t happen to schedules and milestones. Ideas can be developed in execution that can, and in many cases should, make fundamental changes to strategy. If ideation and execution are finitely divorced, this critical upward spiral of ideas into those that not only solve the brief but the problem above it, is stunted.


Others argue that agencies in their current form will die a speedy death, and the sword on which they’ll fall will be crowdsourcing. Scores of independent conceptual and strategic thinkers together with scores of independent execution specialists in channel areas will bid for the work.

The downfall of this approach for me is that whilst it is easy – and undoubtedly valuable – to crowdsource ideas and concepts (see for the best example), it is incredibly difficult to crowdsource teamwork and execution. And it’s impossible to crowdsource the basic organisational support structure that is required to run larger campaigns for big clients. Finally, if everyone is freelancing, crowdsourcing will become unmanageable unless there are some selection processes to control submission volume and quality.

The result may be a hybrid agency model which maintains core support staff and some guiding lights in strategy, idea generation and project management to provide a backbone to an external, more selective (perhaps members-based) crowdsourcing model. Is this enough value for a client, or would they just create those structures themselves? I’d bet on the latter – many already are.
I don’t think anyone has the definitive answer right now; the industry, consumers and clients are evolving rapidly at the moment, and there will be more blood on the floor before the hypotheses are truly tested. Personally I would suggest that the changes should be less in the headline-grabbing, industry wag-horn blowing external structures, and more squarely focused on the internal structures of how briefs are processed, how strategy is developed, and how solutions are built.

Into the future

Firstly, in terms of talent, thinking will win. Too many traditional agency ‘strategists’ exist to deliver retro-fitted rationales to already-created TV campaigns. There’s no client value here – it’s driven by agency revenue, not the client problem. Strategists will have to become the guides, leading multi-disciplinary teams to co-create strategic idea platforms and their tactical delivery – together.

The key to this multi-disciplinary strategy development is the influence of executional or tactical brains sitting around problems and looking up to higher strategy platforms, and being led by a true strategist who has a full stakeholder view of the business problem looking down to the execution. Every seat at the table truly has to have an equal voice. The problem has to be looked at from all sides. Time-consuming? Yes. Expensive? Yup. But valuable? Business relevant? Definitely.

Focus on the problem

At the heart of this co-creation will be the problem, not the brief. If we’re honest, the communications industry has become very good at solving briefs, but very poor at solving business problems. Strategy, ideation and tactical delivery will be much more fluid, adaptable and, to use the current buzzword, “agile”. Planning will be structured around solutions to problems that are less time-based and more result-based. Lighting many small fires will win over the bonfire approach of old, and consumers will hold the matches.

While creativity and innovation will naturally retain their pulpit status, the traditional agency view of creativity will have to continue to spread beyond the traditional products of audio and visual art. As Gareth Kay elegantly describes it, move from “advertising ideas to ideas that can be advertised”.

Transparency and measurability will become paramount. We’re an industry that loves to let clients believe that we shouldn’t play by the same rules as other professional business services. Want influence at the board room table? Start by talking the same language as the Financial Director, be crystal clear on how you deliver value, and be prepared to back it up with a business case, not creative awards.

In my opinion, there’s too much talk at the moment about who should be leading the brand delivery – traditional agencies, digital agencies etc. I believe that’s a red herring. The idea that solves the problem, not the delivery channel, must win – every time. And that’s about changing how we create and deliver ideas, with every channel specialist working collaboratively on an equal footing.

The initial promise of integration was objectives-based, idea before execution and truly channel-neutral delivery. For me, the current problem in the industry is less the external structure of what the agency will look like (and the terminology we use to describe it), and more about the internal operational processes of how service delivery is strategised and conceptualised, from the brief to the problem and back to the solution.

It’s a fascinating time to be in the marketing/communications/media industry. Rules are being created and broken at an incredibly rapid pace. We are fast approaching a crossroads, with decisions being made that will leave some on the right revenue road, and others in the proverbial dust. Which side will we be on? I believe the former. But whatever your view, one thing is for certain. Keeping your head in the sand is the sure way to run through the crossroads and over the abyss.
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