There’s a gaping disconnect between marketers and agencies that’s in danger of widening at a time when creativity plays second fiddle to distribution.
It’s a tired tension in the current business landscape, one that’s being stretched by a mismatch between the expectations of advertisers and the realities of agencies.
What’s fuelling that discord will be widely debated at Cannes Lions this week, particularly when it comes to the role of creative agencies now that distribution drives more advertising revenue than content creation. A closer look at the yachts on show in the south of France will show this; where it was once the creatives who’d brandish the money, it’s now the Facebooks and the News Corps of this world who are the biggest spenders. That’s not a shift that’s happened overnight. Media agencies have emerged from the digital revolution as the architect of the modern day advertising strategy, a rise predicated on their ability to drive a hard bargain on the basis of volume.
That focus on quantity over quality spawned an appetite for paid media that then became an obsession in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. Efficiencies rather than creativity now dominate the minds of cost-conscious marketers, which is arguably doing more harm than good. Look no further than the recent furore around rebates in adland as proof of the damage “the more for less” pressure on both brand and agency is wreaking on their relationships.
Over the past decade traditional creative agencies have come to face some significant new challenges. These began with a shift towards CRM and have since been compounded by additional factors that are all-too-often often raised when the holding companies make their results announcements. Recurring themes include the move to programmatic; the decoupling of creative and production; the rising power of procurement; and budgeting constraints at many large corporates.
Modern marketers want to buy certainty
It’s no wonder then that the agency of record relationship concept is dying a slow death. Or as Alex van Gestel, former senior marketer at Bacardi and now chief executive at agency Verbalisation, puts it: “Clients want to buy certainty and yet the industry is still very compartmentalised.”
He sees this as a symptom of a market where “everyone’s trying to sell rather than really understand how best to engage people’s behaviour in order to drive commercial growth”. “We’ve just looked at one media consolidation strategy and it was about fundamentally cutting the agencies and increasing efficiency and efficacy,” he reveals. “I think it was 10 per cent of global saving they were targeting. But there was a significant expectation of more platform-driven thinking and much more focus on engagement rather than eyeballs.”
Finding an agency that can wrap up engagement in platform-driven thinking is the tricky part for marketers. It’s no secret that some aren’t happy their creative agencies aren’t instinctively digital in thought, deed and action, casting fresh doubt on whether one agency can do it all. Perhaps that’s the wrong question and maybe brands need to prize collaboration as highly as creativity to see improvement.
“I don’t know one single agency that is consistent when it comes to really big overarching strategic thinking, developing huge creative ideas and then understanding how to execute those ideas across many different platforms and many different content genres and then track and place all of that,” opines Airbnb’s chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall.
“I work with best of breed agencies; I work with a brilliant social media agency, a brilliant ad agency, a great digital agency, great content partners and I sit here at Airbnb looking out at the world of creative agencies and I know that in order to optimise my budget and optimise the brand I have to work with a roster of agencies because no one agency can do it all.”
More evidence of this perma-trend came earlier this year when luxury hotel chain Shangri-La appointed DigitasLBi as its lead global agency. The “days of a creative agency developing a big idea that is then passed on to other agencies is really at an end,” says chief marketing officer Steven Taylor, who has BBH and Zenith working together with project manager DigitasLBi to tackle projects ranging from establishing a DMP to transforming its loyalty programme.
One early task for the agencies is working to ensure Shangri-La’s programmatic campaigns link to its owned platforms. Projects like this are part of Taylor’s wider plan to better understand the importance of owned and earned media in order to avoid being reliant on bought audiences. “We no longer see a distinction between a digital and a creative agency when it comes to really understanding our branding, our customers and our markets,” says Taylor.
“We don’t have a creative agency anymore; we don’t have a digital agency anymore; we really don’t separate them. We’ve got one problem and one brief. It’s channel agnostic and we get a unified approach. Most importantly we’re able to react and respond to real-time events. I think that’s probably one of the biggest pivots that is important to the marketing landscape today. Previously, we had these creative briefs and you worked on a big idea that you had months to execute the campaign. Now it’s much more important to be a brand that’s listening and taking part in real-time conversations.”
Marketers need to inspire change from their agencies
The “shift to digital marketing can only start with clients,” says UKTV’s chief marketing and communications officer at UKTV Zoe Clapp, who argues it’s “not realistic for creative agencies to drive the change alone”. What agencies can do, she explains, is become experts in creative best practice for new formats, and “that alone is evolving on a daily basis…. It’s a radical shift but clients don’t care where the good ideas come from so long as they are beautifully, expertly executed.”
As UKTV’s brand boss, Clapp expects those ideas from her agencies Edelman, Joint, Mmmultiply and Omnicon’s Rocket as well as the broadcaster’s in-house creative shop – no one team has a monopoly on creative thinking. Like her peers at Airbnb and Shangri-La, Clapp’s attitude shows a growing willingness to brief and buy digital in every campaign they ever commission.
For example, in March the broadcaster ran its first Facebook Live stream – a 15-minute, behind-the-scenes film with magician Dynamo. Some 239,000 people watched it live, and the stream had over 55,000 likes, comments and shares. The show went on to be its W channel’s most watched programme since its launch in January. And there’s a legacy: the organic reach of the film is now 2.2m.
“The questions should all be answered in a good brief,” says Clapp.
“And we simply do not brief for a TV idea. Working in TV, and believing in TV, that’s not often the natural thing to do. But it’s important to start with a big, platform-neutral idea. The TV ad is always going to be incredibly important to us – we believe in (and invest in) the power of TV to reach people in a way that no other platform can. But unconstrained from 30 second ideas, there’s a world of opportunity for agencies who are smart enough, and flexible enough, to take it.”
The agency of the future
Some are already rising to that challenge; since the turn of the year agencies including Iris, Analog Folk, St Luke’s and Golin have recalibrated their offerings to data grounding everything they do in order to prove their worth for clients. That means being able to use the data to demonstrate a real understanding of consumer behaviour and linked to the ability to measure and articulate results.
There’s also an increasing emphasis placed on the use of freelancers and outsourcing. The former is an attractive option given the flexibility of the staff and the ability to draw in a wide range of specialist skills to specific projects. However, the downsides are it becomes more difficult to get the culture right/maintain consistent training etc. In certain cases the outsourced model can be more successful and a successful team can be deployed into a client permanently.
“The opportunity has only just got to creative agencies because marketers are only now starting to brief in that integrated way,” claims Neil Henderson, chief executive of St Luke’s. To deliver on those broader briefs, the agency’s data scientists, channel experts, creatives and planners are all involved at the beginning and go on to map the campaign on different channels. It sounds straightforward in theory but not every creative agency wants to do it to the required depth as shown by Heineken’s revelation about an agency’s disinterest in digital last year.
“We’re having to think if this is the idea for the campaign then what’s the flexibility of the assets we create for it and what’s the generic imagery that can carry multiple messages as well as a host of other details,” says Henderson, who has invested in getting the agency up to speed with how multiple messaging translates into creative and all the production that goes into achieving that.
“That changes the ratio of production, media and potential fee to the agency that has to be worked through with client and agency,” he continues. The reality being that the agency will either get bigger production costs from a client or will be forced to find cheaper ways of producing more creative.
Without a more robust view of creativity that considers everything from programmatic to Facebook videos’ silent auto-plays, agencies like St Luke’s know clients will move their budgets elsewhere. It’s no surprise then that one of Heineken’s most ‘fit for purpose’ creative assets in 2014 was created by its DSP partner TubeMogul rather than a traditional creative shop.
The ad tech business has an in-house creative team that runs the gamut from purely executional campaign builds and design services to video post-production and strategic consulting. Staffed by a team of 40 that include interactive designers, front-end developers and strategic consultants, its size is testament to the fact that marketers need expertise now more than ever in order to test and learn.
“Our desire is not to compete with creative agencies. Rather, it's to use our skills to help clients - whether they be creative agencies, media agencies or brands - find new ways to reach consumers by merging creative and programmatic together,” says Jeff Parrish, senior director of global creative at TubeMogul.
“Brands work with us because we’ve got a platform that enables them to serve up all these disparate creatives and we can run these at both a global and local level so that it becomes cost-effective.”
Global vs local? How much is too much automation? To centralise or specialise? These are the challenges the modern marketer has to overcome. And in turn those demands have brought about the demise of the generalist and the rise of the specialist.
Fundamentally what marketers are increasingly being challenged about is results, it’s not just about clicks and open rates," adds Joydeep Bhattacharya, managing director of Accenture Interactive's business in the UK.
"Therefore our strategy is unique in that it makes accountable for outcomes and results. Because we are a partner that uses a pay-for-performance model, clients prefer working with us and in an outcome oriented mind-set often want us to lead in managing other agencies too."
The rise of the new breed
Where agencies once held a tight grip on upcoming creative talent, more and more they’re being wooed by the technology powerhouses like Google and Facebook and management consultants such as Accenture and Deloitte. What’s more is they have proactive in trying to keep those businesses ahead of the game through a number of strategies such as introducing different remuneration models, which are more closely aligned to data and thus more accountable. Agile working has also become a key skill – which is very much in keeping with a technology and software development mind-set.
“The convergence of tech and marketing means there’s a growing demand for people that can talk both languages. After all, you might be a great data scientist, but that’s not useful if you can’t explain to a marketer what this insight actually means for them,” says Mark Cox, director, Results International.
“That said, I don’t think we’ll see Facebook or Google building their own agencies. We have certainly seen agency staff make the move towards the tech giants though – particularly around media buying. You only have to consider how much WPP and other agencies holding companies spend with Facebook and Google to appreciate why the tech companies would want to bring some of that expertise in-house.”
According to Richard Robinson, managing partner at marketing consultancy Oystercatchers, “it’s not a question of upping your digital game anymore it’s acknowledging that there is no game without digital”. Robinson warns: “Digital in creativity today has become no different to breathing, it just happens 24/7 without you thinking about it, and if it doesn’t you die.”
“From my side I think that too often marketers perpetuate the myth that if only the agency changed its model then everything would be OK. The reality is that clients need to create the environment and decision-making systems where they are willing to buy the model that they claim to seek. Too often when faced with the opportunity to create a new model of true full-service, end-to-end commercial creativity delivered in real-time to the consumer marketers and brands are unwilling to accept the price-tag and the responsibility that this brings with it.”
Remuneration then has to play a key role in establishing this new model of “true full-service”. It’s not lost on Shangri-La’s Taylor, who is moving away from appraising campaign performance on a “semi-regular basis” to actually appraising campaign performance almost each day. “Instead of using standard metrics like click throughs, banners and conversions to keep our agencies honest, we’re looking at what degree has the content we create actually drives conversations. We’re focused on what can we do in real-time to drive greater conversations around the campaigns.”
On that point, DigitasLBi’s global client services director Laurent Ezekiel, adds: “We’ve got several relationships where we have set out to engage in a truly commercial partnership with a client through a revenue share model. There was one project where we invested upfront and the client put in some money and essentially we share the profits. With another client we get remunerated based on the cost savings the digital services and products we produce for them make.
Fundamentally what marketers are increasingly being challenged about is results, it’s not just about clicks and open rates anymore.
“We talk a lot about budget and expenditure yet the industry still seems to be taking a suck it and see approach,” says Verbalisation’s van Gestel.
“However brands communicate with their consumers, be it through paid or earned media, is irrelevant if all our insights ignore audience psychology. There’s just nothing cost-effective about it. The creative execution and the medium it’s housed in will fundamentally fail unless we work from a starting point built on certainty instead of sand.”