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Navigating convergence: Marketing agencies need to break free of our self-imposed boundaries

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red and a passionate advocate of the good that marketing can do, working on social purpose and behaviour change projects for the past 10 years.

When media and creative agencies separated, some visionary marketers foretold failure. Whilst that failure has been preceded by success, (and significant financial success at that) the cracks are beginning to show. It is now clear that we need to move back to a model where we develop ideas with no delineation between creative and media or, between media owner and platform.

We have become very used to the idea of specialism, and latterly, to multiple specialisms. But convergence is here. The tinkering around the edge of our marketing processes needs to be replaced with properly thought out, new ways to generate brilliant, people-centric campaigns. Consumers are racing ahead in terms of how they engage and connect whilst marketing teams and agencies are tripping up over who should be doing what, when.

Whilst we have made a start in some areas to re-integrate media and creative, convergence will take us further than that – tech, media owners and media platforms all have a larger role to play at a much earlier part of the process. And here’s the rub for many agencies – platforms have been heading in this direction for some years with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat all offering clients creative campaign building capability as well as effective means to distribute and measure that creative content. By working directly with clients, they have side-stepped the media vs creative debate that has become our go-to navel gaze.

The boundaries between paid, owned and earned media have become blurred – what is paid for in one instance is leveraged as PR in another. Convergence is about mirroring and in some ways predicting consumer behaviour. Both of these needs are in part fulfilled by technology.

The rash of clients last year that employed senior figures to lead the charge on technology was a sure sign of the times. How well the remit of those chief technology officers integrates with that of their colleagues across marketing, remains to be seen; but we can all agree that technology has a clear role to play in enabling brands and organisations to have more value-driven relationships with their audiences. Technology underpins our deep understanding of people (as distinct from customers or consumers). It also means that we can physically and figuratively walk with them as they go about their lives – a privilege previously unknown.

There are some client marketers for whom convergence is a given. Peter Markey, brand communications and marketing director of Aviva, says that he briefs agencies of all disciplines together so that they come up with the right answer to the same question. Perhaps more tellingly, there has been a notable increase in the number of clients procuring creative and media together. Asda reputedly handed a joint account to Publicis Groupe without a pitch earlier this month and, according to the industry press, Paddy Power has a live pitch for the same underway.

The presence of platforms in a converged landscape is set to accelerate too – these very modern media owners are spearheading models which bring brands, events and distribution together in ways which are hard for more traditional structures to manage. The awarding of Snapchat with live rights for Wimbledon, which includes a media deal for Häagen Dazs and Stella Artois (competition sponsors) marks a gear-change for Snapchat in the UK and one which surpasses debate about whether it is a media platform, creative partner or both.

So how do we organise ourselves in a converged world? On the surface, larger networks and groups should be well placed to restructure around a more agnostic client need. But as much as existing scale and a range of disciplines brings benefits, it can also bring significant challenges. Smaller independent agencies have the benefit of being able to build from scratch a network of experts that precisely meet a brief – in hiring VCCP and MEC in the recent combined media and creative pitch, Transport for London marketing director Chris Macleod said that he recognised the benefits that putting everything into one network could bring, but getting the best in class agencies for the job was more important.

The virtual networks, such as WPI and TheNetworkOne, formed to bring together independent agencies globally for cross-continent clients, would appear to be the perfect blend of the other two. It will be interesting to see how they help mixed discipline independents build models that are truly converged when those smaller agencies all have a bottom line to protect.

Early evidence is that independents, large and small, are able to step up to this challenge. Barclaycard’s Shopping Showdown work this week is a great example of what can be achieved when agencies, clients and platform play to their strengths but without playing defensively. Iris, AKQA and Maxus have developed work which has presence and purpose with a smart cultural insight at its heart. Similarly, our own work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission for young women’s maternity rights at work (#PowerToTheBump) with ChannelMum came about by truly converged thinking, and working very closely with the platform itself.

P&G's Roisin Donnelly is quoted at a recent event as saying that our business “has become too hung up on platforms, the latest thing to come along, when we should be completely and utterly people-obsessed and people-centric”. I completely agree and think that the way to do that is to break down the boundaries of our own making and create work unshackled from outdated, financially founded structures.

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red

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