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Which agencies really lead strategy? The Economist's Becky McKinlay on industry shifts


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

October 26, 2020 | 6 min read

Publishers are heralding their audience insights and relationships as keen informers of marketing strategy, but they have their work cut out for them being heard in a saturated market.


Which agencies really lead strategy? The Economist's Becky McKinlay on industry shifts

As part of The Drum's Agencies4Growth festival, The Economist’s Becky McKinlay, laid out how the client dynamic is changing and where savvy operators can grow.

At the Economist, Rebecca McKinlay, is head of marketing communications, client solutions. It is her job to steer the unit through the complex jungle of adland and clients returning for its expertise. She leverages years of experience within the publishing and advertising industries, including as a team lead at WPP before joining the acclaimed mag. During the panel, she discusses how her business was affected and the waves she sees sweeping the rest of the sector.

Pandemic performance

Before determining market growth, McKinlay first describes how The Economist performed after a difficult Q". Budgets started recovering in August and September. “It was more positive than we expected”.

Luxury spenders, travel, and tourism brands went quiet. Into the breach were financial services, technology and government clients.

“This may not necessarily be an indication for long term growth trajectory, it may well be that clients are using budgets.” McKinlay adds: “Who knows what next year’s budgets will look like.”

Regionally, Europe is showing some “strength” although Brexit could still bite. In the US, the election will have lasting implications on economic confidence too.

The client relationship

According to its website, The Economist has been “creating content solutions for marketers since 1947.” In other words, it has been operating with brands before the mass adoption of the television around the world.

But in May, it reformed its clients solution business to work with brands around global policy and research insights as well as its “marketing amplification capabilities”. Interest is split about 50/50 between its insights offering and its media channels. Thought leadership is part of the toolkit and stands across both.

This sector showed “real resilience” during the lockdown – with clients keen to show how they are navigating the adverse conditions. When many brands went quiet across the board, this relationship ensured conversations continued.

“Agencies are looking to their publishing and media partners to be very specialist and specific. It plays into our hands. We are not a mass reach provider, there are other media owners that will create that broad reach, but when you need real depth of engagement, that is where we play best."

Very specific questions about very specific audiences are getting brands in the door at The Economist. The Intelligence unit, capable of delivering panels, surveys, and access to experts, serves as the flywheel of repeat business. Its insights can action a campaign, or even later measure their influence and the impact.

“It's beholden on us to help educate the agencies as well, and solve problems with them.”

The agency relationship

There was a time when the team hosted teach and learn sessions with agencies to help buff up audience or media planners. That’s quietened down for now.

Typically, The Economist gets tagged into a brief by a media agency; although things are changing. "We're seeing a lot more briefs and proposals from PR, corporate comms and content agencies”. McKinlay asks the question: “Who is really leading strategy for clients? Is it the creative agencies or the media agencies?”

This is one of the battles she will observe closely. She also sees difficulties for integrated agencies ahead.

“Being integrated doesn't mean you're not specialists but agencies need to have the courage of convictions of nailing what they are experts in because clients are smarter than they have ever been.”

To this end, brand in-housing efforts continue with mixed success, but it means there’s less budget for the jack of all trades agency to seize. “They've enhanced a lot of capabilities. They have their hands on the keyboards now. They don’t want a partner who is trying to cover too many bases and own as much budget as possible, they can see through that.”

There is a benefit in having fewer, more specialized individuals on the brief – for one thing, clients are clearer about what their getting in return.


Looking forward, McKinlay offers tips for the year ahead.

She sees growth for agencies offering “truly commercial advice based on deep insights-based creativity”. Use of data and storytelling are equally important here. “Really understanding audiences and influence triggers within that will also be fundamental.”

Equally, for the publishers, she sees more clients coming directly to them, particularly if in-housing of media continues. She is wary of stepping on the toes of the agency partners who once fed the briefs.

She concludes: “There will always be overlapping capabilities in this industry, there always have been, success will come from specialization. We’ll all have room to play here. 2021 is simply about focus, own your expertise, add value for clients.”

Watch the panel here. For more insights, inspiration and celebration of the advertising industry, tune into this week’s Agencies4Growth festival.

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