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Nobody likes a control freak: Rapp's Shiona McDougall on developing a client relationship without limits

By Shiona McDougall | SVP of strategy



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February 1, 2017 | 5 min read

Chief marketing officers, marketing managers, creatives, agency folk – we’re all guilty of a little control freakery. I’m not talking about personal leadership styles (that’s a whole other story). I’m talking about the relationships between brands and consumers. Control in any relationship isn’t healthy. Controlling brand-consumer relationships does not end well either. Look at what happened to the music industry.

Shiona McDougall is senior vice president of strategy at Rapp

Shiona McDougall is senior vice president of strategy at Rapp

You wouldn’t make the same mistakes though would you? Or would you? Let’s take a closer look at whether you are a client relationship control freak.

  • Do you decide what’s best for your customers? (“next best action” program?)
  • Do you choose the best time to communicate with customers? (“weekly e-newsletter”?)
  • Do you determine which channels customers may hear from you in? (channel silos?)
  • Does your customer relationship lack fun due to lack of spontaneity (lengthy legal sign off process?)
  • Do you dictate what consumers may talk to you about (IVR menu options?)
  • Do you direct consumers to your response channel of choice (single channel call to action?)
  • Are you guilty of brand storytelling? (you know who you are)

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s ok. Many brands and marketers are still clinging on to control. It’s understandable. Control is a human response to chaos and anxiety, and chaos and anxiety are rife in our industry thanks to the levels of change in recent years.

Technology has turned our old marketing world on its head. Adtech and martech have changed what we do beyond all recognition. Whichever branch of marketing you belong to, complexity just increased tenfold thanks to programmatic, data management platforms, cross-device identities, data lakes, machine learning, and more.

In our brave new world, consumer touchpoints are literally infinite and in our valiant efforts to improve relevancy and impact of our communications, we’ve inadvertently made the whole thing too big for any one of us to fully understand. We clutch onto a few remnants of control because that makes us feel a bit better amongst the chaos.

The problem is, consumers have got wise. Times have changed. The value exchange between brands and consumers has evolved. Recent research by RAPP in partnership with Sign Salad shows that the modern consumer expects more than a little more product for a slightly lower price. They expect increased control as part of the bargain. And the smart brands are handing it over.

Airlines and cinemas allow customers to select their own seats. Energy suppliers are providing smart-meters for consumers to decide where and when to save. Supermarkets are even handing over control of which products you get discounts on. As a general rule though, marketing practices are grounded in ‘brand to consumer’ rather than acknowledging that the balance of power has shifted to ‘brand and consumer’, as equal partners in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Turns out relinquishing control is as rewarding and as powerful as taking control. So, what should marketing be doing differently to tap into this new consumer psyche?

  • Start with partnering with people and agencies that fully understand the new parts of the marketing ecosystem. Tech literate agencies can implement and operate your martech stack efficiently and effectively on your behalf. Task them with leveraging data and technology to provide new levels of precision and relevance in your marketing communications, but also task them with delivering that precision with empathy and human understanding.
  • Change your attitude to the customer data you hold. You don’t own it, your customers do, they’ve chosen to let you use it for a while – in exchange for something in return. Start being more grateful for that privilege and make sure consumers see the dividends of their generosity.
  • Know your customers. Not just their demographics or product holdings. Know their behaviour, their journey so far, their aspirations and fears as real people who live and breathe, think and feel, laugh and cry.
  • Put consumers back in the driving seat by providing them the tools with which to manage their own marketing; create more granular permission centres and invite consumers in. Play back transaction or usage data to them to help them see the value.

Once you’ve mastered (or rather relinquished) control the potential payback is huge. You can step off the treadmill of diminishing returns for the offers and deals you used to bribe your audience with. Instead you can see the returns from a healthier relationship with increasingly engaged consumers you no longer have to pay to listen. With a little careful relationship nurturing, those consumers may even surprise you with their enthusiasm and passion for your brand, not to mention a renewed willingness to spend.

Shiona McDougall is senior vice president of strategy at Rapp.

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RAPP is a global, data-driven creative community that builds direct, meaningful and high-value relationships between brands and people. At RAPP, with our unrivalled depth of expertise in first-party data, we’ve been observing and cataloguing real people’s lives for 50 years. In today’s world the balance of power has shifted, and customers are in control, which is why we put people and their preferences at the heart of the brand experience. With a talent base of more than 1,600 professionals in 18 offices, we help brands grow the value of real people by understanding what really matters and creating experiences that are right for real people, with real needs, in real time, creating marketing that matters. Our expertise in data and marketing sciences allows us to deliver our clients actionable human insight - an incredible understanding of genuine motivations, observed transactions and actual interactions. Our process reflects how real people think; we balance the left brain and the right, and we do our best work when we bring Precision and Empathy into balance. Building on our data foundation, RAPP delivers a range of capability across social, digital, customer experience and technology.

RAPP is proud to employ talented people across the US, the UK, Argentina, France, Germany, China, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Bangkok and Dubai, and we actively foster an inclusive workplace where diversity and individual differences are valued and leveraged to achieve our vision.

RAPP is part of Omnicom Precision Marketing Group, a division of the DAS Group of Companies.

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