RocketMill Digital Agency Census Agency Models

Digital Agency Census: RocketMill’s CEO explains why agency models need to adapt

By Tom Byrne, CEO

April 27, 2022 | 6 min read

With increasing privacy regulation set to change the game in digital advertising (again), the old debate over short-term performance against long-term brand marketing has returned. Tom Byrne, chief executive of RocketMill (one of the best digital agencies in the country, according to its clients), argues that agencies must combine both if they’re to remain competitive.

digi census asset

Tom Byrne, chief executive of RocketMill, debates short-term performance v long-term brand marketing

The agency model was once based on the quality of thought. Iteration wasn’t possible with the media formats of the time, so the best ideas won out on their own merits. In that world, strategy, planning and creative were the routes to competitive advantage.

The digital age ushered in a proliferation of media choice alongside the ability to iterate creative based on real-time feedback. Strategy and creativity have been subverted by technical ability and analytics.

Clients and agencies reacted during this era by favoring specialization and depth of thought (platform expertise and performance marketing) rather than breadth of thought (strategic vision and brand building). Thus, the brand v performance battle lines were drawn.

At the same time, consumer expectations have evolved rapidly. They have embraced new technologies at an astonishing pace, meaning an intimate, personalized relationship is now a hygiene factor for companies in many sectors and most consumer brands.

In their pursuit of better customer experience (CX), decision-making for many large advertisers was therefore solely underpinned by data fidelity. This in turn has shaped the agency value proposition.

That started with, ’We have the best thought from the best people,’ and developed into, ’We have more thought from better people.’ Then came specialism or, ’We have people better at this.’ Integration led to, ’We have people better at all this,’ while globalization gave us, ’We have people better at all this everywhere.’

The success of these models and therefore the narrative for astute clients hinges on talent, motivation, cooperation and coordination.

But now, privacy increasingly limits the ability to farm data to activate direct personalization through rule and algorithm-based automation. The paradigm has shifted again.

So in today’s world, advertisers find themselves somewhere between the old world and the new. Yes, they have data. Yes, they can move fast. Yes, they have a plethora of media. But they are increasingly forced to model their data to drive business/marketing decisions. Brand and performance marketers must work in harmony. Emulsifying these two worlds, which operate at different speeds with different criteria and views of success, has been core to shaping the narrative. After all, brand should transform sales performance, and performance results in millions of interactions that affect brand.

They have always been two sides of the same coin, so why have they failed to gel?

Put simply, the industry changes faster than its people. To compound this; in so much of digital advertising, platform algorithms shape communication driving toward personalization. Thus a kaleidoscope of perspectives are needed to shape the information presented to the algo. Diversity of thought is therefore pivotal to avoid the danger of stereotyping. This risk is so commonly seen in coding when a limited perspective is amplified through an algorithm (white men code facial recognition to recognize the face of white men).

This requires a level of ego-free co-operation that intrinsically needs us all to be comfortable and motivated enough to be vulnerable. The payback, of course, is in not just the moral requirement of individual respect – it unlocks staggering degrees of innovation as a wider set of contexts are accommodated.

As the needs created by digitalization have risen in significance, the agency power base is too often anchored in the past. Look to the incredibly rapid growth of the group of digital-first networks to challenge the old guard. Same model, different focus.

What has not changed is the employee-employer social contract. The models and structure that allow their teams the freedom to flourish are often instead colored by a commercial agenda that sees the team as a commodity. True collaboration requires aligned motivation within a supporting culture and an acknowledgment that the team is the true asset. Unfortunately this has not evolved – until now.

In many ways we have come full circle. Those limitations in media that required us to plan, plan, plan have changed into the platforms. These allow iteration, but the ever-changing algorithms and automation at our disposal need perspective, perspective, perspective to ensure that our message exists in the correct context, to an audience that expects a universal and seamless experience.

Therefore, we must move from an organization that has a diversity of motives and consistency of perspective to one that has consistent motives unlocking diversity of perspective.

An organization built to celebrate vulnerability liberates the freedom of ideas through pooled wisdom and collaboration by design. Therefore, when we work in partnership with our clients, we are united in goal and agenda unencumbered by ego.

RocketMill achieves this through the principle of shared ownership and being an EOA (employee-owned agency). This is fundamental to making absolute collaboration a reality.

We are a business of 150 business owners who care about their clients like only an owner does. 150 brave entrepreneurs who invest in a better future knowing it will deliver a better return for our clients and our community. 150 people who acknowledge that their success is directly linked to the success of each person next to them and, ultimately, how well they work together.

Thomas Byrne is chief executive officer of RocketMill.

Check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive over at our Digital Advertising hub.

RocketMill Digital Agency Census Agency Models

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