Robert Sawatzky
Apr 5, 2021

The X factor: Why agencies want to lead in ‘experience’

When asked to describe what they do, more agencies are describing themselves as providers of ‘experience’. What exactly does this mean?

The X factor: Why agencies want to lead in ‘experience’

With each passing year, new forms of ‘marketing speak’ enter our industry vocabulary. Just a warning—you will get a healthy dose of such language throughout this article. Sometimes these are new words and phrases, or at other times they’re old words given new meanings. Initially awkward, gangly and misunderstood, many of these terms gradually gain credence until they stand up on their own and become fully accepted and adopted by more and more loving practitioners everywhere. 

Campaign’s Agency Report Cards are somewhat of a bellwether in this regard. From year to year, more agencies start to employ similar terms to describe business services, but rarely with the exact same meaning. In the past year, one such term that risen to prominence is ‘experience’. It appeared it no less than 490 times in our agency submissions.

In the past agency ‘experience’ offerings were something mostly associated with live events and experiential activations for brands. These had been a surging business pre-pandemic as brands like Mastercard advocated shifting more money from advertising into ‘experiences’.   

But even outside of the activation sphere, more and more agencies profess to be leaders in experience, often represented by the letter ‘X’. Most of the time this is really about customer experience (CX) or digital experience (DX) alongside boutique agencies such as IPG’s Huge (graphic below) that specialize in design (another DX) and user experience (UX).

But every agency likes to be different, and we’re well on our way to a deluge of new x-citing acronyms. In 2019, Isobar launched an ‘XR Playbook’ to “guide the future of experience” explaining how XR was the convergence of AR, VR and MR.  And late last year, Accenture Interactive heralded the coming of an “experience renaissance”, staking its future on the evolution of CX to BX, aka the business of experience. In these cases, experience really is everything—or at least means the totality of everything involved.

While not every agency wants to ‘experience’-everything (ADK, MediaCom, MullenLowe and PHD only referenced the term once in their Campaign Agency Report Card submissions), those that like it use it a lot. Accenture Interactive emerged as most 'experience'-happy, referencing the term 51 times, followed by Isobar (42), R/GA (37), VMLY&R (36) and AKQA (29).

So what exactly do agencies of experience do? Depends on who you ask.


This report is part of a series exploring trends we noted while preparing our latest Agency Report Cards feature, in which we rate and analyse 39 APAC agency networks. Each report card includes an overall grade plus a detailed analysis and scores for management; innovation; clients and business; creativity; and people and diversity. The report cards are available only to Campaign Asia-Pacific members. Become a member to get access to all 39 of the 2020 Agency Report Cards, plus many additional benefits. 


Starcom

One of the first agencies to define its services as an ‘experience’ offering was Publicis media agency Starcom, which for more than a decade has defined itself as ‘The Human Experience Company’, even employing the tagline in official agency titles such as “human experience strategy leader” (of which it hired 150 around the world). While slagged by some as nonsense, Starcom’s human experience ethos through the years has essentially stood for growing business by “understanding people better and giving them experiences they value”.

Those experiences, Starcom global brand president John Sheehy explained to Campaign in 2018, are formed when the agency does what most agencies do best: blend art and science:

With Starcom, we’ve been the human experience company for the last 10 years. What’s guiding that is the belief that the alchemy between creativity and more technology unlocks both human and business outcomes. We believe that experiences matter because of that connectivity between what brands want and consumers need.

So in Starcom’s case, experiences are in the work the agency provides.

Dentsu X

In 2017, Dentsu Media rebranded to Dentsu X, explaining that X stands for “experience over exposure”. The holding company’s APAC leader at the time, Takaki Hibino, explained to Campaign that exposing people to straight advertising was no longer sufficient in a world where informed customers were leading demand and deciding what and when to buy based on sub-conscious triggers and past experiences.

As Hibino explained further:

Marketing is now required to attract, acquire, convert, and, crucially, retain customers; it should be seamless and efficient. And it means that holistic experience of marketing is critical for any brand to succeed… Agencies need to understand people’s values and motivations behind data… We believe in the power of experience over exposure and we design experiences to work with human nature by combining the understanding of people, data and creative distribution, and creating experiences that win. This is our manifesto.

So much like Starcom, ‘experiences’ to Dentsu X are the products and services the agency creates from human understanding, but also suggests a much more holistic view of marketing beyond traditional channels.

This can be seen pretty clearly in the 2020 Dentsu X Agency Report Card submission, where ‘experience’ is mentioned 23 times. The agency described its five core capabilities (called ‘X5’ of course) to design and deliver experiences for clients as follows.

The X5 core capabilities of Dentsu X

  1. dX insight: Experiences architected with a deep insight on motivation through advanced data
  2. dX idea: Experiences based on a Big Idea generated through creative resources network
  3. dX entertainment: Experiences through entertainment & sports content: format development, brand integration, rights management
  4. dX lab: Experiences enabled by tech innovation, ranging from biometrics, AR/VR to blockchain
  5. dX commerce: Experiences from new routes to market and consumers, including e-commerce and new retail

In effect, experiences have come to mean any of a multitude of ways that brands can interact with you. When Southeast Asian super app Grab added ‘experiences’ to its offering, it meant it had opened up to everything from retail and entertainment, to food, products and services.

CX+: R/GA, VMLY&R, AKQA, Isobar & more

During the past pandemic-plagued year, as consumers largely shifted activities online, more agencies have stepped up and adapted their ‘experience’ manifestos to focus on providing ‘connected experiences’. And this brings us to how most agencies are now employing the term, to essentially mean online customer experience.

In R/GA’s submission, most of the 37 references to ‘experience’ deal with designing online customer and user experiences, from new online banking experiences with Stanchart’s Mox Bank to creating new ecommerce purchase paths for Toyota.

VMLY&R claims to be “sitting at the heart of brand experience and customer experience intersection”, meaning that the agency applied specific brand values and influences to all consumer journey touchpoints. Among its 36 references to experience work were a mobile multimedia feature for PepsiCo China and variety of digital products for Ford, allowing the brand to connect with consumers via smartphones and dealers with new platforms.  

Even just helping brands to sell online can be framed as an experience. Among its 29 references, AKQA lists “experience-led brand transformation” as a key service, creating full “connected commerce” services for a number of brands that traditionally had sold through retail.  Bridgestone, for example, turned to the agency to build “an ecommerce experience” (an online service) allowing customers to find and purchase tyres and book fittings for their vehicles. Nestle Purina started an “omni-channel shopping experience” (online shop) to sell direct to consumers.

In its business breakdown, Digitas combines CX and DX into what it calls “experience orchestration”, again involving commerce and user experience, as one of three main business revenue streams separate from CRM & Loyalty and Connected Campaigns.

Isobar

Isobar has flown the ‘experience’ flag more overtly for several years now, declaring its ambition to become “experience agency of record for businesses and brands,” which is why it references 'experience' 42 times in its Agency Report Card submission. Like AKQA, Isobar claims to deliver “experience-led transformation, powered by creativity”.

Creativity is supposedly Isobar’s differentiator, as its CX services were intentionally reinterpreted last year to become “creative experience” services. Isobar’s submission explains why:

2020 was a pivotal moment in our how our agency viewed experience as transformational for our teams and clients. From a Customer Experience approach that eliminates fricton, pursues best practice, prioritises demand generation and an obsession with optimisation, to a Creative Experience belief system that is engineered to create delight, pursues brand practice and creates desire, and ultimately a belief that only through innovation will brands continue to differentiate and grow.

It then backed up this notion of creative experience being the more advanced, brand innovation-infused iteration of customer experience with a massive Creative Experience Survey of 1350 global CMOs.

While the phrase is a nice way to differentiate and speak to clients, Isobar’s work is largely in line with the others: new online services for brands like Suntory and Adidas and many ecommerce solutions for brands we cannot mention.

The most ‘experienced’: Accenture Interactive

Given everything we have written above, there should be little surprise that Accenture Interactive takes the cake when it comes billing itself as an experience company, with 51 references throughout its Agency Report Card submission. As a digital transformation and creative consultancy that designs and builds bespoke digital tools and capabilities for brands, it does all of the above.

“Experience architects” run Accenture Interactive’s experience transformation specialism, whose goal is summed up as follows:

Owning experience from start to finish is our key objective. Our vision is the commitment to helping design, build, communicate and run experiences that make people’s lives better, more productive and more meaningful.

The key here is the all-encompassing nature of experience Accenture claims it can provide on behalf of brands. Whereas most agencies are contracted to create a few specific solutions, Accenture Interactive’s work is inevitably on a much grander scale, as part of global contracts for multinationals and their subsidiaries to revamp entire business models through Accenture’s main consulting business. As was the case with one prominent Asian consumer brand, AI then provides the omnichannel commerce services across retail, D2C and B2B. Everything about the consumer’s interaction with the business, its digital interfaces and its partners becomes a larger experience strategy.

In a rare experience transformation deal Accenture Interactive allowed us to report, it announced last October it was appointed by Thailand’s leading loyalty program, The 1, to go beyond loyalty and revamp customer experience to personalize its offerings to its 17 million members to create “a new kind of experience economy in Thailand”.  

This was around the same time that Accenture put forth its vision of moving beyond CX to BX:

Right now, an experience renaissance is afoot—one that is galvanizing companies to push beyond the CX philosophy and organize the whole business around the delivery of exceptional experiences. These experiences must respond to customers’ new, often unmet and frequently changing needs and enable them to achieve their desired outcomes. This is the Business of Experience (BX).

The idea here from Accenture is that CX was a good start, but it’s not enough. To win customers over, they can’t just be impressed with a strong digital service that’s easy to use. The entire company must be structured to evolve along with consumers.

“COVID has pushed experience further into the spotlight, accelerating its significance through every function and employee,” Accenture Interactives’s group CEO Brian Whipple explained. “Simply put, when you improve the experience, you improve lives and, in turn, you improve business.”

If only anything was ‘simply put’ when it comes to experience. Let’s face it, most experience-speak is hype and jargon. We’re largely talking about building online interfaces for consumers to connect with brand products and services, and brands prefer to call these episodes experiences rather than interactions or transactions.

Still, there is something to this ‘experience’ phenomenon. Of all the 11 agencies who referenced ‘experience’ 17 times or more in their submissions, every single one of them landed a top three grade. 

The language, of course, is not critical. But those who tie their agency services most closely to customer experience are probably more likely to be fostering talent and skill sets desired by brands. So long as they do so in deed, and not just in word.

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