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‘Shit is going to get serious’: Marketers on how agency life is evolving in 2024


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

January 29, 2024 | 12 min read

We asked leading marketers for their most pressing predictions about how agency life will evolve over the next 12 months. If you’re expecting a screed of AI debate, think again.

A depiction of the evolution of humans in silhouette

How is agency life evolving this year? / Johannes Plenio via Unsplash

Next week, The Drum’s flagship predictions event will see marketing’s best and brightest debate the near future of tech, media, and brands. But what about agencies themselves?

The macro-outlook for agencies is mixed. The IPA’s Bellwether report last week signaled at least some willingness to spend among clients, but at pretty much the same time, S4’s Sir Martin Sorrell declared that “we are not expecting 2024 to show macro-economic improvement”.

So: optimism or pessimism? And either way, how will those big trends bubble down into changes in agency studios across the globe? We asked a bumper crop of marketers from The Drum Network.

Roland Gurney, founder, Treacle: “Agencies will continue to evolve towards offering strategy and consultancy. As delivery becomes increasingly automated and commoditized, they’ll push to sell thinking, not just doing. Senior stakeholders will need to be billable again, driving a rise in personal branding as leaders become the visible brains behind businesses. Sales and new business people will also need to adapt. Some shops will look to productize their strategy or consultancy offers in a bid to make them more concrete. Others will simply add the word ‘strategic’ to their messaging and hope it works. It won’t.”

Sarah Ogden, managing director, UK, Team Lewis: “Risk is rising. War looms. Corporate fatigue is the new epidemic. Motivation is moving from purpose back to money. The world is making marketers more motivated to play ‘safe’. Having to prove every penny (for impact and business return) is being positioned as the way to unlock potential. But data won’t save the day. The future of agencies is to own the new dawn of creativity and storytelling. Behind every failed business plan is a badly executed vision. Behind every failed innovation product pipeline are teams lacking passion, emotion, and reasons to care. Behind every financial crash is a toxic depletion of confidence and community. Creative agencies can’t exist just to make things look pretty or ‘cool’; to polish the corporate skin; add veneer to company values; or cover up the corporate bruises. Creativity can disrupt, yes, but it can also make positive connections that move mountains.”

Niall Dowling, director, Atomic: “We’ll learn to sing for our supper again. There’s less money around and clients and end-customers are (rightly) a bit more skeptical and a bit harder to convince. Those of us who worked through 2009 will know the feeling. Influencing skills will be highly prized. In B2B, thinking hard about buyer motivations (or lack thereof) will never have been more important. The froth has been blown from the tech market, and the old demand-gen tactics feel increasingly desperate. Agencies that can bring something new to marketers’ understanding of what’s happening out there will see their stock rise with frustrated CMOs.”

Hilary Gray, associate director, group operations, Propeller Group: “2024 will test agencies that mandated return-to-work policies in 2023. With the jobs market cooling, there could be a temptation to cut policies that focus on culture and flexibility. But this would be a false economy and a poor strategic move – prioritizing employees pays huge dividends in productivity, engagement, and loyalty. Employee happiness must be a number-one priority in 2024.”

Ben Fox, chief executive officer, Fox Agency: “Shit is going to get serious. Agencies will be forced to up their game or face the consequences. The role of the B2B CMO has evolved; there’s no turning back. Beyond ‘brand-level activity’, there’s a laser focus on driving growth and impacting opportunity and revenue. For CMOs this means a vast and ever-expanding remit, with huge expectations and pressure to perform. Quite rightly, they will demand more from their agency partners. Agencies who are still acting purely as ‘executors’ will be left behind. With a challenging global economic backdrop, general market uncertainty, a continuous quest for marketing and sales alignment, shifting audience demographics, and ever-expanding communication channels, the agencies that will thrive are those that can credibly perform across the three Cs: creativity, commerciality, and consultancy.”

Julian Sowerby, chief executive officer, Don't be Shy: “The days of sniping and sneering at competitor agencies are long gone. No more gloating at pitch losses, financial woes, or staff poachings. B2B agencies are working together (albeit unofficially) to educate their collective client base. There’s a shared focus on helping B2B marketers help themselves (and generate more projects for agencies). Agencies are providing marketers with advice on getting the board excited about a campaign; on securing budget for branding and long-term projects; on positioning marketing as an enabler for sales success; on investing in martech that’ll make a real difference. The B2B marketing industry is looking to raise the quality of marketing, and secure recognition for marketers within their own organizations. There’s no time for bitter rivalries.”

Chris Edwards, chief executive officer, Tommy: “Standing still as an agency has never been such a dangerous move. While, once, we may have been able to double down on specific specialities and expertise, clients are now asking for more. Services are no longer a clean-cut list which fit nicely onto a slide for a credentials deck; they’re constantly changing, evolving, and dipping in and out of one another. Agencies need to shake up their reliance on one-dimensional campaigns as clients demand different disciplines to intertwine, delivering truly distinctive campaigns”.

James Kirwan, programmatic & ATL account director, Tug: “The biggest change to agency life will be the evolution of collaboration between agencies. The industry is experiencing a massive shift in capabilities, especially in targeting and measurement, accelerated by Chrome’s cookie depreciation. We’ve seen the relationships between media, tech and creative agencies become more established and collaborative, with the necessary sharing of insights, results, and data opportunities becoming imperative to be able to drive success for clients in a more fragmented industry.”

Jenny Edwards, capabilities manager, Redpill: “Agency life has evolved since the pandemic, traversing remote working, the ‘great resignation’, and hybrid work-life balance. We must further develop our understanding of how our teams prefer to work. In what Henley Business School has coined the ‘omniployment’ era, attracting and retaining distinct worker segments has evolved too. A one-size-fits-all approach will no longer satisfy the diversity of our workforce’s preferences. Focusing on the individual will be key to retaining and attracting top talent. Providing opt-in benefits, making work flexible while retaining vital human connections, and ensuring transparent communications and systems are some of the tools at our disposal.”

Gyles Marshall, commercial director, Rawnet: “What I’ve seen change most is the ability to mold each engagement to each client. A few years back, agencies had their processes, which started with discovery and ended with delivery. Now, clients don't care as much about what the agency’s process is; they care about how quickly and efficiently that agency can integrate with their business and start making an impact (while complementing their unique setup). This stems from their budgets and investments being scrutinized more than ever. They want a solution that plugs the gaps perfectly. Yes, they want someone with the right expertise to drive them forward, the right strategies and the right commercial thinking, but also the ability to adapt to ensure the investment is as efficient as possible.”

Simon Hearn, managing director, APAC, Distillery: “Independent agencies will need to forge greater alliances to better complement their armory and offering. Client budgets (and teams) are shrinking; the need for one-stop agency solutions will grow as they look for bang-for-buck. The challenge for agency leaders is how this works behind the scenes from a client servicing and operational process perspective. We’re doing this a lot more with influencer, PR, and performance media partners – co-pitching and collaborating to make clients’ lives easier.”

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Emma Clayton, HSE and wellbeing manager, Search Laboratory: “There needs to be a stronger focus on sustainable client work this year. Consumers increasingly buy from brands that embrace meaningful purpose and sustainability, and clients are keener than ever to partner with agencies that actively consider the world around them. It’s important that digital marketing agencies begin to learn how to make our digital work more sustainable, allowing us to continue positively impacting society. It’s not just about being a sustainable agency, but how we can make clients’ campaigns more sustainable.”

Natasha Bowyer, insights strategist, Siegel+Gale: “In the post-pandemic working world, employers are beginning to recognize the importance meeting employee’s needs. Along with growing measures to adhere to diversity and inclusion, employers are working to make their brand attractive to the top talent (and retain current talent). Investment in specialist employee branding research will rise, focusing on brand-led change, enabling clients to really understand their brand from the inside-out, ensuring it aligns with vison, values, and purpose. We’ll also do more to understand DEI and B (belonging). Brand champions and role models will give clients the tools to provide their employees with a voice. Champions breed champions.”

Aimee Pagano, global head of talent acquisition, VML: “Top of mind is the work environment, with crystalizing hybrid work arrangements (but remote work arrangements not as prevalent as in past). We’re seeing leadership asking people to come back into offices, and people themselves wanting to come back in some hybrid arrangement. Learning and collaboration coming from in-person exposure to teams are lost when only virtual. There is so much to be gained from working together, while also allowing folks to enjoy the life balance of WFH. Meanwhile, AI will require new skills and reshape some roles. The World Economic Forum has said that AI will create 69m new jobs globally in the next five years. We’ll see focus on upskilling, reskilling internal talent pools to fill open roles.”

Paul Button, chief executive officer, iCrossing UK: “Expect a shift in agency business models, from delivering creative and media services to implementing marketing and technology solutions that transform customer experiences. Innovation will sit at the heart of this, in delivery and evolving remuneration models – from commoditized services to more valuable marketing solutions. Regular upskilling and a commitment to staying ahead of the curve will be crucial, placing value on the combination of skills to deliver market-leading solutions (while learning how technology can help people be more effective, reducing time on repeatable low-level tasks and investing it back in higher-level strategic thinking). We’ll see fresh competition for talent, prioritizing problem-finding over problem-solving. Teams with greater thought diversity, reduced silos and more ‘together time’ will find and solve our clients’ biggest problems faster.”

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