Rahul Sachitanand
Mar 31, 2022

Agencies' innovation fervour tempered in 2021

AGENCY REPORT CARD ANALYSIS: Rather than announce splashy new concepts, shops preferred to talk about geographically scaling out and commercialising ideas this year.

Agencies' innovation fervour tempered in 2021

Unlike in previous years, agencies in the 2021 edition of Campaign's Agency Report Cards took a more measured note when reviewing innovation efforts. Rather than unveil a swathe of ideas, most shops preferred to focus on beefing up existing offerings and unveiled just a couple of new ideas in 2021. Most important for many of them was ensuring client buy-in to their innovations from prior years.

Take for example, TBWA, the highest-rated agency in this category and the only one to achieve an A- rating. The agency announced it had retooled its Disruption methodology with new techniques and resources rebranded as DisruptionX, with the 'X’ standing for experience. A demand practice developed in Asia became a key part of this initiative, backed by a growing centre of excellence for data in Singapore with data leads in several markets.

Other tools were also well-applied to TBWA's large customers, such as Growth Explorer and Boost Engine. The former, which helps clients see and act on changes in purchase intent, debuted with SIA but has since expanded to several blue-chip clients including AB InBev and Hennessey.

Tessa Conrad, TBWA

Elsewhere, the agency is establishing competency in gaming and 'extended reality', resulting in the 2021 win of metaverse-based fashion brand Altava Group, while in ecommerce, an offering that launched with HKTVMall has potential to expand to other platforms. To tie-up these efforts, TBWA also appointed Tessa Conrad as regional head of innovation. She works closely with Luke Eid, TBWA's Sydney-based global chief innovation officer, and has created a 21-person pan-regional innovation leadership team.

However, TBWA was just one of nine agencies to see an innovation upgrade in 2021, while 16 networks saw their ranking dip for this segment. Sluggish innovation efforts were visible across all sizes and types of agencies in 2021. Some agencies felt that simply considering advertising in a new light was innovation enough. Others just didn't make it a priority when chasing business. But without evidence of how innovations were applied and changing outcomes, that ratio of downgrades increased, with one agency dropping as low as a D+ in 2021 for failing to offer any processes or innovations that might set it apart, as it focused on stabilising business.

A drive to survive was hardly the only reason for adopting a more measured innovation strategy. Consider the case of media agency leader Mindshare, which had a quiet 2021 on this front, compared to the bagful of ideas it showed off previously, and saw its innovation grade slip. To its credit, Mindshare launched its first APAC inclusion private marketplace which focuses on ensuring funding and representation of indigenous business and communities—though it's too early to tell its true impact. The GroupM agency's work on supply-path optimisation (where it consolidated the number of supply-side partners it works with from 68 to 23), helped identify cost savings with select suppliers and passed on these cost savings to advertisers. That said, it sounds more like a return to past practices than the development of new ones. 

In sharp contrast, Dentsu’s top media agency Carat endured a challenging year on the business front but did submit some innovative ideas that earned it a grade increase. In 2021, Carat built on its ‘Designing for People’ idea unveiled in 2020, by adding a five-stage sprint process intended to refine the way it responds to a brief. The agency contends that this approach firmly moves it away from a linear process structure to a more iterative one, and importantly saw customer buy-in from the likes of Kelloggs, P&G and Vodafone. Elsewhere, its Culture Content Lab in China helped clients such as Jo Malone identify distinct consumer segments more accurately.

The most innovative agencies in 2021 also showed off capabilities to not just commercialise their ideas, but also scale them across clients and or geographies. This year, Mediacom’s Singapore hub developed an ecommerce business intelligence system, MWorkshop, which consolidates data from Shopee and Lazada to estimate demand and make portfolio investment decisions for clients. Initially developed for Fonterra, MWorkshop has been scaled globally across GroupM and contributed to the Unilever retention for sister agency Mindshare. 

Josh Gallagher, Mediacom

Also from Singapore, Mediacom's systems intelligence data and analytics team developed an AI-driven Creative Analytics tool. Designed to optimise underperforming creative, this is being scaled across WPP, pointing to both APAC’s growing innovation clout for the agency and Josh Gallagher’s leadership.

At fellow GroupM shop Wavemaker, we noted that there was innovation developed across APAC markets, applied to core strategy, and used by clients all in the same year, earning it a grade upgrade. The agency unveiled three APAC-developed innovations in its planning systems. In Australia, Live Journey added live data sources from over 100 partners into Wavemaker’s existing purchase journey framework, called Momentum. This played a role in the L’Oreal win, allowing Wavemaker to use Woolworth’s data to build out digital ‘purchase audiences’ for Maybelline. Other retail and services firms are now using the toolkit, which was rolled out globally in September.

The French cosmetics giant was also aided by Wavemaker’s world-first deal with Amazon globally to be able to map out audience cohorts directly in Amazon’s platform, which mainly helps in Australia and India. Finally, a team in Southeast Asia developed a tool called Illuminate to give brands a more transparent view of their pricing, shelf space, how their content looks and who key competitors are on relevant platforms like Lazada and Shopee. This was a key driver in the agency more than doubling its ecommerce business in SEA.

To be sure, it wasn’t just GroupM agencies hogging the innovation headlines. At Publics Media’s agencies, the focus was on acquiring and managing clients with first-party data and facilitating second-party data partnerships. The most prominent innovation from Publicis Media was Growth OS, a system that the network says will allow all marketing partners—including clients and the non-Publicis agencies that are involved in much client work—to have the same comprehensive view of all kinds of data: purchase data, social-monitoring data and media-consumption data. Growth OS is in use in some APAC markets and will be live across the region by the end of this year.

Publicis' Growth OS

Publicis has market-specific innovations underway. In China, for example, it has worked with Alimama, JD and Bytedance on tools that help clients analyse and capitalise on ecommerce search signals. In the Philippines, a system called U-Scan Shop ID lets consumers earn points from brands when they upload images of receipts via Facebook Messenger. Machine learning reads and analyses the images to gather first-party data.

Partnerships, scale, client use and outcomes. Asia Pacific's top agency innovators were the ones who brought these together successfully. 

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