With increasing pressure on CMOs to deliver measurable returns on marketing investment, and the ever-growing fragmentation of the agency landscape, agency selection has been coming up for more frequent scrutiny. The typical agency relationship today lasts for no more than three years.
Most clients, while selecting an agency, seem to give a lot of importance to the quality of ideas, the quality of the talent, and the agency’s track record.
While these continue to be important, there are other parameters that deserve far greater consideration. In fact, I believe that in our current environment, these new parameters will likely determine long-term success more emphatically than any others.
Consider what has really changed in the context in which agencies are expected to work today. I highlight four major changes that require your agency to not just do and think differently, but importantly, to value different things.
Moving away from campaigns to always-on engagement
The focus on delivering customer experiences is a huge shift in how agencies have traditionally thought about their responsibility, and in many cases, their capability. This challenges the existing muscle memory in most agencies, where the emphasis traditionally has been on exposure and broadcasting, not engagement and response.
Campaign-focused thinking is at odds with how consumers experience brands, and the always-on engagement that they seek. The traditional approach of advertising output has been the big idea and how it plays out across media. Marketing to today’s consumer requires multiple small ideas—each of which is context aware as it plays out on a different platform, but all of which are connected around one organizing principle.
These two shifts require agencies to have the perspective to think across the ecosystem of customer experiences, and yet have the agility and focus to come up with specific ideas that take advantage of native capabilities of each platform. Unfortunately, many clients assume that great talent alone can accomplish this. In reality, this requires agencies to have the wisdom and humility to challenge their beliefs around how modern brand engagement works.
Measurement is not a pretty report
Digital and measurement go hand in hand. Brands like the accountability and transparency that this brings in. Yet, most agencies struggle to truly demonstrate measurable value. At its core, the issue is this - the entire system of measurement in the agency world was designed around measuring the engagement of large audiences for a very short time. Today, we want to measure the engagement of small audiences for a long time. When this engagement stretches across channels, media, consumer contexts, it introduces a level of complexity that can be mind numbing. This requires a new language, a new set of metrics, new ways of assessing agency value, new incentive structures and new governance models.
Consumer centricity is a shift in agency value
Being a connected brand means being present when your consumers are talking and interacting with you. For brands to do this well requires authenticity and a shift from creating great one time content to sustaining a conversation. The emphasis is on providing value and a level of utility to the customer. This requires a spirit of giving without an immediate expectation of return. This is a large shift in both perspective and value since agencies have been traditionally measured on short-term shifts in audience behaviours.
The marketing function changes
As we focus on how the art of marketing is changing, we sometimes lose sight of how the marketing function itself is changing within organisations, and how that might require agencies to engage differently. Most marketing departments are adding new roles and capabilities, driving shifts in governance models with the business and with IT, examining their relationship with the customer, taking on greater accountability for measurable performance. Today, marketing needs help from agency partners to bring about this change. Agencies that have not shown the ability to transform themselves cannot be expected to enable this transformation.
And finally, today most brands hire multiple specialist agencies to provide specific expertise. Agencies that are used to working as one big team often lack the ability to collaborate, to sit across the table with other partners and determine what’s best for the client.
Looking at these changes together, I believe that CMOs need to evaluate agencies through these two important lenses:
- Perspective: Keynes supposedly said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Agencies that have built their identity and reputation around a set of beliefs often find it hard to change them, and that is what you need to assess. What is your agency’s worldview? How does your agency think about connecting experiences across media? About the relationship with the customer? How does it see the role of strategy? About the ideation process? About the role and nature of media?
- Culture: In the gold rush of accumulating capabilities and going after new territories, most agencies haven’t had the time to pause and examine if their culture and values support the needs of their clients. More than ever before, this is a huge determinant of success. Does the agency have a common culture? Or is it a collection of motley individuals who bring their craft to the table, but little cohesion? How good is your agency at collaboration? With other agencies and your team? Can they relate and connect? How good are they at changing? Are they humble? Willing to learn?
If there is one thing we have learnt from the last few years, it’s that change is never going to be this slow again. The path to the future cannot be forged with the thinking of the past. The success of brands will depend on their ability to ask different questions of themselves and their agencies than they have done in the past.
Rajdeep Endow is the global delivery lead at SapientNitro.