The Tuesday morning event explored how media owners and agency partners can adapt their structures, disciplines, technology and business models to adjust to a world where consumers have unprecedented information access and demand relevance and reward for their time.
"But we haven’t figured out how to truly engage the consumer," said Roel De Vries, VP and global head of marketing and brand strategy at Nissan. "We are still too compartmentalised and specialised in certain fields."
This compartmentalisation is also evident in the traditional agency business model—something that was created 25 years ago and does not fit today, panelists agreed.
"I think we specialise too much because we needed it at that time for specialisations to be broken up from the old-fashioned, full-service agencies," De Vries said. "At the moment, that is not working anymore, as our job is to create an integrated marketing message for consumers. How do we do that if clients and agencies are completely separate?"
The industry is in the middle of a massive shift in the way marketing content are created, said Erin McPherson, chief content officer of Maker Studios. "We take our cues from digital creators about what is quality content. They know intuitively how to reach their consumers, and because they have access to their audience, they are also distributors in their own right."
Multi-channel networks like Makers Studio are not subject to the "endemic behaviour" of pitching and other pricing transparency problems prevalent in the traditional client-agency relationship, said McPherson. "We are able to work holistically as we are in both the content-creation and media-channel businesses," she said. Also, some brands are embracing content creators as partners (even if others are still seeing them as hired endorsers). The opportunity is to build communities that are mostly unpaid. It may mean paying some of them for endorsement, but it is paying an already authentic fan base which is already using the brand of its own accord.
"We are not trying to replicate what an agency does but to enhance what they do. We don’t see ourselves as another agency that the client has to manage," said McPherson.
But the change in current client-agency relationships that should happen is the "spirit of partnership" and advocates problem solving rather than filling an order. The future of client-agency relationships will be one where "we do a lot of listening and throw out what we thought was true before", added McPherson.
"If we organise ourselves into what the consumer expects of content, that is the best bet," said Carolyn Everson, VP, global marketing solutions at Facebook.
These reasons make up the need to change the way clients and agencies work together. "We need a healthy client-agency eco-system. I don’t think we have the healthiest one yet," said Everson.
The view of Mainardo de Nardis, OMD Worldwide CEO, is to be "brutal" about it. "Otherwise we keep talking about it year after year and nothing changes."
TBWA used to be in a "fairly arrogant position where we didn’t value partnerships [with other agencies] that much in the past", said Troy Ruhanen, president and CEO of the agency. Today, the agency recognises its need for a variety of different partners. "It's all part of 'collaboranomics'," he said. "It’s when we try to trip over each other and get into each other’s territories that the problem arises, and then suddenly the account is up for review."
On one hand, re-integration of the agency specialisations that branched out 25 years ago is good, but on the other hand, media is getting complicated so specialists are still needed, said OMD's de Nardis.
But what the integration model will look like is a conversation for the next few years, pointed out Nissan's De Vries. "It's not so much about stopping specialisms."
Specialists themselves also have to evolve. "The people that we previously have in account servicing used to be about maintaining client relationships but now it’s more about data," Ruhanen said. "The emphasis is what we need to know about the consumer with data, to quicken up the process whereby we transfer knowledge into content."
However, the number one complaint from Facebook users, revealed Everson, is "if you know so much about me, why am i seeing crappy ads?" Nissan's De Vries also has not figured out whether data is helping or hindering his business. "I would be very happy if I had a simple meter showing what is working. I am a little bit concerned that sometimes we are fooling ourselves with all this data. We are going round and round without real, deep insight on whether we are moving the needle".
A case in point, added Everson, is how 4 million people talk about laundry on Facebook and, surprisingly, not about it being a chore, but about a sense of accomplishment from doing laundry. That is the insight that can be turned into a creative and relevant ad, and that is ultimately more rewarding for both the client and agency, she said.
"If I am sitting in the brand marketer’s chair, my entire conversation would start from the consumer," she posited. "I know it sounds really obvious, but that consumer insight is going to inform the creative."
As a client, De Vries said he would like to issue briefs that are not about business objectives. "Tradtional objectives like launching a car will go back into the traditional agency system."
But it is hard to "short-circuit" that part of the client-agency relationship, according to McPherson, as clients have P&L commitments and agencies have revenue to make.
A client-agency relationship, is a partnership of trust instead of a master-slave arrangement, said Nissan's De Vries. Trust is "scary" as clients need to open up in order to do that. "There is a saying that you get the agencies you deserve. If you open up more of your business to agencies and they respond, then you get a breakthrough in the relationship."
All the global media reviews currently happening are stemming from the fact that the industry is struggling to reintegrate a system that is so separated now. "Yes, we have the power to change the system in terms of money, but that alone will not change the system," said De Vries. That is why the tendency to turn to pitches as a solution is a crutch for the client-agency relationship, but because no one wants to ask the hard questions about performance issues, things remain in the realm of talk.
Asia presents a unique situation in the sense that being mobile-first comes much more naturally in countries like China and Indonesia which leapfrogged the cycles of television and radio. "So, in Asia, the client-agency relationship can actually change quicker," said De Vries.
Nissan has a team called 'United 1.0', which is an integration unit that sits above all the individual specialist agencies for the car manufacturer. Ideally, that team is where De Vries wants to take a brief to in the first place, but the problem lies in client-agency assessment still being around projects and procurement.
As a result, Nissan is trying to commit to allocating 10 per cent of budget (and briefs to agencies) to "brand-statement, sort of, objectives that enhances emotional resonance with consumers". This, in place of briefs like selling 10,000 cars each month (which will still be around, but only 90 per cent of the time), according to De Vries.