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Mergers and Acquisitions Technology

Why this digital age calls for analogue agencies

By Barry Dudley, Partner

Green Square


Opinion article

November 7, 2017 | 8 min read

It’s pretty much a given that we now live in a digital age: our consumption – including consumption of marketing messages, music, movies, software – is driven by the net, by mobile devices and the like.

analogue agencies thriving in a digital world

Physical media, linear TV and permanent ownership have been replaced by subscriptions, streaming, catch-up services and cloud-based models.

But is this really the case? Do we live in a digital age, or one in which analogue continues to thrive?

In music, for example, we certainly do – the first digital music format, the CD, was supposed to have killed off the predominant analogue carrier, vinyl, 30 years ago. That hasn’t happened. While vinyl will never again become the pre-eminent format for music, it’s enjoying a revival which shows no sign of fading. In addition, vinyl is now the premium carrier of recorded sound, while downloads, streams and even physical CDs have become commoditised, available at low prices or even for free.

Similarly, people still go to the movies regularly and many are willing to pay top whack for a communal big screen experience despite the popularity of the likes of Amazon and Netflix. The huge success of the BBC’s Blue Planet II demonstrates that there is still a substantial appetite for ‘event TV’, when a large part of the population watches scheduled programmes at the same time.

And what of marcomms? It has long been assumed that the old ‘analogue’ way of doing things is dead. But just as the PVR didn’t really kill off TV advertising – viewing figures and budgets for Super Bowl ads in the US testify to that, and a spot in the Coronation Street break continues to command some of the highest prices on UK TV – neither has digital managed to kill off the old ways of serving up ad messages. Although print (newspapers and mags, once the pre-eminent advertising channel) has suffered, TV and outdoor continue to thrive.

And, as the YouTube boycott of earlier this year (which my Green Square colleague Tony Walford wrote about in The Drum) demonstrates, the brave new world of digital is not without its problems. In a world of programmatic, automated advertising, clients cannot be sure where, or in what context, their messages are appearing.

There is, it seems, no replacement for human judgement when it comes to getting the right message out at the right time and in the right place.

So what does this mean for the structure of the marcomms industry? Will it go the way of the music business and become a slimmed-down version of its former self?

There was a rather interesting podcast on AdExchanger Talks recently featuring the enigmatic Marco Scognamiglio, in which the global chief executive of CRM/digital giant Rapp makes some very salient points. Chief among these is the idea that the marketing services industry has changed, while in many senses remaining the same. For example, for an agency like Rapp, or OgilvyOne, Proximity or Wunderman (to name but four) things have changed little – after all, CRM and direct marketing have changed little in 50 years, because they’ve always been data-driven industries.

What has changed is the competitive set. Once, these agencies’ competitors were others in the same space; now, they have a whole new set of competitors, from media agencies through to consultants like Accenture or Deloitte and even tech giants like Google, Adobe or Apple.

The same’s true of the ad agencies. Their competitive set is also media agencies, tech colossi and consultants.

So, how do they adapt?

Obviously, we live in disruptive times, in which all manner of industries and business practices have been turned upside down, and recognising this is the first step to self-preservation. Next comes the acceptance that old ways of doing things aren’t going to cut it any more.

Thirdly, if the Publicises, Ogilvys, McCanns and other famous names are to survive into the next decade and further, paradoxically, they have to get back to analogue.

By this I don’t mean go back to making the carefully crafted print ads of the 1950s, but recognising the single most important resource any agency – digital or ‘old school’ – or marketing services newcomer (such as consultants) have: what HR types call ‘human capital’.

No algorithm or programme can replicate the inspired hunch of an experienced hand, those dazzling and seemingly random insights that come to us all; nothing can replace the brilliantly witty endline; most of all, not even the world’s brainiest computer knows how to deliberately break rules, and do something illogical or seemingly counter-intuitive.

Bill Bernbach’s “Think Small” campaign for VW; W+K’s reinvention of that naffest of fragrances, Old Spice as something cool to aspire to; O&M’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” for Dove; and those memorable Saatchi ads for BA, as well as work for Nike, Apple, Hovis, Heineken and Stella to name just a few, are examples of radical insights and humour that can’t be done by machines.

They are the result of teams of great people – creatives, planners, suits and others. This is why the best talent – especially the creative sort, will always be in demand. Hence, if the great marketing services brand names are to survive, they will have to draw ever deeper on their human resources, and make sure they hire the best.

Of course, digital media strategists, data crunchers and analysts will be needed too, but the high-flying types one would have seen at an agency 30 years ago will still be around, and as – if not more – valued as they ever were.

Another reason why “analogue” agencies will be so important in the next few years is because everyone’s looking for accountability. On the one hand, this means the brands are seeking accountability and transparency (and return on investment) from their agencies; but on the other, consumers are seeking more from brands – trust, accountability, values that chime with their own, and so on. Brands can no longer take consumers for granted, they have to become more “customer-centric”.

Despite predictions that marketing communications will be a more data-driven business, I believe they will become more of a people-driven business. People buy from people, the old cliché goes, but it’s true – and will become ever more so.

The reason I say this is because partnerships and collaboration are becoming ever more important – between consumers and brands (brands will be increasingly shaped by customer demands, as opposed to brands adopting a “top down” approach); and between brands and their marcomms agencies.

This may mean that the idea of a “client” and an “agency of record” slowly dies out, to be replaced by a more fluid type of collaborative partnership, built around temporary arrangements as and when necessary. So, the familiar concept of a roster of agencies will remain; brands will pick those agencies (or even individuals from agencies – already staff from PR and CRM agencies are sometimes “embedded” on a semi-permanent basis with a client’s own organisation) best suited to a particular task from the roster.

This also means that agencies will have to adapt. A top-heavy, hierarchical structure will be increasingly less viable (and profitable). Even the big, long-established agency names will have to become like startups: leaner, faster, more adaptable. As slimmer operations, they will be much more reliant on their best people, and the most important task facing management will be to recruit and retain talent (we’ll be tackling this crucial issue in a future blog post). And that doesn’t just mean shelling out – it’s a well-known fact that the under-35s especially are looking for more than just financial reward.

So, job satisfaction, attractive working conditions, the chance to be creative and really effect change, will also become a key reason for not only joining a particular agency, but also the marcomms industry more generally. In return, talent will need to be willing to move around, learn new skills and adapt quickly to new situations and changing consumer needs.

So, it’ll be a world of fluid roles and employment patterns, but one in which human talent, skills and inspiration will play a vital role; paradoxically, in the brave new “digital” world the most “analogue” (ie, “human”) companies will be the ones which prosper most.

Barry Dudley is a partner at Green Square, corporate finance advisors to the media and marketing sector

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