Automation, voice, IoT, wearables, 5G, self-driving cars, the Next Big Thing (#NBT); all these are coming. Many of them are here already. You’ve certainly heard of them all already. The early adopters are already out there doing some early adopting and soon some perceived 'futuristic' tech will be ubiquitous.
The impact of these tools on media consumption is routinely discussed. Each year futurologists, pundits and media agencies spend a goodly chunk of November and December thinking about the impact that this year’s electronic Christmas gifts will have on channel usage come January and opining about how campaign planning should best leverage the opportunity they represent. All perfectly splendid and respectable. But over the longer term, what’s the trend here? What do these things mean for advertising generally, and for the media agency in particular?
At Space & Time, we take pains to stay relevant by reacting to the latest tools and trends but it’s also vital to take a step back and consider the wider implications of the most recent advances in tech.
The human skills that technology can't emulate
Increasingly the benefit to consumers of technological advancement is the chance to take a break from thinking. From the pocket calculator to Netflix recommendations, we construct machines to do our thinking for us, to consume huge amounts of information and spit out an answer. The coming wave of tech will push this even further, whether that’s fridges that save us from having to think about whether we need milk or not, or cars that can save us from the thought needed to steer and honk.
For the media agency, tech is doing something slightly different. Advances in AI are rapidly speeding up processes and automating things that used to take up lots of our time, whether that’s automated bidding with Google or using regression analysis to understand the impact of TV spots on web sessions. But these developments aren’t doing the thinking for us. Rather, all this automated number crunching is creating more opportunities to think; tech is mining more data seams to think about and freeing up resource to do that which computers (so far) cannot - reflective analysis and creative thinking.
This reveals the first major impact of automation on the media agency space, creating a further shift in focus away from do-for-me and towards think-for-me. If tech is making new windows, it remains incumbent on the agency to have the vision to ensure that they’re in the right place and then to lean out and have a bloody good look. Made all the more vital by the movement towards self-service and in-housing, this shift puts a premium on creative media planning, lucid analysis and strategic thought. Agencies in 2020 need to earn their salt not through what they can do but through their ways of doing it. They need to think more about the thoughts behind the media plan; the strategy behind the automation; and the service that goes beyond simply fulfilling tasks.
Using data to develop niche specialisms
Another key requirement for media agencies over the coming years represents a significant opportunity for the independent sector. The erosion of a notional boundary between things that are conceptually 'digital' and things that are not is already a well-remarked phenomenon. The binary on/offline pairing is increasingly redundant. The consumer has largely the same experience whether an outdoor poster is bought by the fortnight or traded programmatically; contemporary TVs essentially bring pre-roll into the living room; many print brands command huge online audiences and significant social followings.
Mirroring this within the expertise and the resource available to a media agency makes good sense for the provision of a well-rounded media plan. It matches the right tool to the job without enforcing any distinction between channels, and without requiring teams of various stripes to brief each other, compete for budget or overcome different commercial objectives.
It also reduces the risk of in-built obsolescence: this is extremely easily achieved for businesses where generalism has been a welcome necessity, but may prove more of a challenge where scale has made siloed structures essential. There are consequences for neutrality too - genuine channel agnosticism can only come from a planner who is equally as comfortable with programmatic audio as with partially addressed mail.
This isn’t to say we’ve had enough of experts, but that today expertise has to look rather different. We must be experts in the consumer’s day and in the touchpoints along a typical path to purchase, and not impose artificial distinctions on how we understand, trade and report on media. Helpfully, these days there’s rather a lot of data available to help with this, and an increasing amount of automation to do the heavy lifting.
The importance of data transparency
Another commonplace among discussions of the advancement of digital media tech is the commoditisation of the consumer. If a service or an app is free, we’re told, that must mean that your data is the product. Well… yes. Clichés about a data gold rush are common, but they’re also true.
For the media agency, this means that the amount of available data about consumers and their interests and proclivities is exploding. To stay relevant, an agency must therefore invest in the tools and the expertise necessary to reveal and exploit a data shadow. The GDPR has had a profound, necessary impact on personally identifiable information, but anonymised and generalised data streams still abound and, used properly, can add immense value to a client’s schedule.
This shift will have significant consequences for agency remuneration. Businesses built on a retained commission model must become accustomed to charging for time spent in homogenising, integrating and analysing data. That might be based on billable hours or, in some circumstances, payment by results. With confusion more or less removed entirely and the decline of the traditional payment model, eventually Fred Allen’s line could be revisited: advertising is 95% insight and 5% commission. Nowhere near as witty, but still.
Why technological advancement paves the way for human learning
Lastly, to properly understand the impact of technological trends on the media agency, we must acknowledge the value of the more traditional horizon-gazing futurology.
With ever more toys for planners to play with, a growing abundance of data, and the continued fragmentation of media consumption, there are more opportunities than ever to break new ground, and there are still significant benefits to be found for both advertiser and agency in getting there first.
In many regards this is nothing new; creativity has always been its own reward. But with a renewed emphasis on thought in general, a proliferation of opportunities to test new approaches and an increased capacity to judge their efficacy, the judicious application of creativity and invention will be vital. On a steepening curve of technological advancement, leading the way can only become more essential. What we cannot dream we can never do.
Ed Hill, managing partner at Space & Time.