Are creative agencies oblivious to rising technologies?

Panel debate at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity

The Drum and lifecycle engagement platform Appboy hosted a lively debate at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in June when we questioned the role creative agencies will play in a rapidly changing ad industry.

For advertising creatives, Cannes Lions represents a unique moment – an annual jamboree where their finest work is feted and fawned over by the industry’s most prominent global names. But are such festivities only ensuring that agencies continue to view their world through rosé-coloured glasses, oblivious to the existential threats to come? That’s the question we put to a panel of experts from IBM, News UK, Starcom, Karmarama, Wunderman, MRM Meteorite and R/GA during this year’s festival.

The Drum Studios’ managing director Justin Pearse kicks off the debate by asking how agencies should respond to the rise of professional services and technology firms and remain clients’ orchestrators of choice.

For Matthew Candy, the European leader for IBM’s interactive experience business, the successes achieved by consultancies are an inevitable consequence of technological development and the rising importance of data.

“You’ve got two industries that have grown up separately and those boundaries are collapsing,” he says. “This is just the next stage of that morphing.”

Rob Davis, the president of Starcom in Chicago, meanwhile admits that professional services companies can sometimes offer “more competition” than conventional agency rivals.

All eyes inevitably turn to Karmarama’s managing partner Lawrence Weber whose creative shop was acquired by consulting and technology giant Accenture last year. Weber argues that by integrating the creativity of an agency with the structures and capabilities of a consultancy, the agency was finding a way to build “better customer experiences” that cater to a “higher view” of business challenges.

And, he claims, taking the consultancy approach of project fees and payment by outcome rather than the traditional agency time-based compensation model is attractive to clients.

Matt Tepper, chief strategy officer at Wunderman North America, concurs that agencies must re-think their approach if they are to ensure clients gain access to a full breadth of skills at a reasonable price. “Agencies are stuck in this world of fee by the hour, so it is making it more challenging to have cross-functional teams,” he comments.

Not everyone agrees that consultancies represent an immediate peril, however. “I don’t think we need to be scared. Not at the moment, anyway,” says Nicky Bullard, the chairwoman and chief creative officer at MRM Meteorite.

“At agencies we are creative to our heart. For consultancies there is a long way to catch up creatively.”

Matt Lodder, the executive vice-president and EMEA managing director at R/GA, echoes these sentiments, asking: “Why would we be frightened by something that doesn’t have creativity to the core?”

And as the tectonic plates shift beneath the industry’s feet, it should not be overlooked that publishers are also engaging more directly with advertisers according to Milton Elias, head of mobile and video at News UK.

“The lines are blurring all over the place, but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “It is more difficult than ever now to be a chief marketing officer. Marketers are realizing they need to deliver on all areas and need more smart people in the room to talk to.”

Brands must develop a comprehensive ecosystem of partners to meet their changing needs, and agencies should desist from exaggerating their own capabilities claims R/GA’s Lodder.

“Anyone who says they have all the answers these days isn’t telling the truth. We will help you behave like a startup by bringing in expertise from the outside.”

Matt McRoberts, the vice-president of partnerships and channel at Appboy, observes that a period of even a year or two represents a “long time” in the marketplace, and says the optimal combination of partners can help brands to embed digital throughout an organization.

“Businesses have created these silos, but how do you make sure that digital isn’t just a hub or an arm, and that it is indicative of the whole process?” he asks. “Getting to the heart of that consumer experience becomes the name of the game. And the expectations are off the chart.”

The panel agrees that creativity remains a vital asset for brands, but that the stakes have been raised. “In the old days we would apply creativity to a print ad; now we apply it to business problems,” says Bullard.

While it has rarely, if ever, been more demanding to be in business, today’s marketing landscape offers unprecedented scope for creative services according to Candy.

“I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be a creator. There is an opportunity for all of us to transform brands,” he says.

“The world is so much more complex than ever before,” concludes Tepper.

Creativity – and the agencies that were for so long home to that creative vision – must find a new role in this changing advertising industry. Otherwise, the individuals and organizations so used to toasting success in the Cannes sunshine may find themselves instead drowning their sorrows.

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Alexa Brown

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