In most modern discussions, the agency of the future is the flavour of the day while we spend far less time in discussing the future of the agency. Just this week the announcement of the staggering shift of an 80-year-old relationship shook the advertising fraternity and this promises to be just the first of many such wickets to fall. While the very accomplished ladies and gentlemen of the industry are perfectly adept in building brands for others, they seem to have forgotten the basics of building their own organisation brands. As a result, clients are discovering far fewer reasons to stick on to a long-lasting partner and are being delighted by the joys of new suitors, adding far greater value than previously imagined. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the full-service creative agency is rapidly losing credentials as a sustainable brand on parameters popularly applicable in any category.
It is important to first re-establish the basic reasons why clients chose to work with the same agency for years and even decades in order to understand the new developments. There was a shared belief that the agency is best-equipped to become the consistent voice of the brand and make it client-proof, effectively protecting it from irrational deviations caused by management changes. In a very purist sense remain the loyal voice of the customer, a stature earned by being the designated communicator with the fewest degrees of separation. Intrinsic to this belief was a largely exaggerated black-box halo to the advertising process, designed as if by a secret sauce that is virtually impossible to replicate. Starting with the deeply over-rated concept of Brand Understanding, as it does not take genius intellect to decode the DNA of brands, which mostly is public knowledge anyway. In all fairness, many classical clients considered the historical advertising relationship to be an insurance policy for potential failures and equally a convenient springboard for greater glories for both brand and career. All of the above leading to high level of comfort in continuity as opposed to the unfamiliar departure that may occur as an outcome of change.
In this new dynamic world of business, comfort is exactly the sentiment that consistently leads to doom for organisation, manager and communication campaign as is proven by numerous examples. A culture of strategic outsourcing and easy access to funds has made it possible for virtually anybody to enter any business at any point in time. The combination of entrepreneurship, vision, nimbleness and audacity makes life difficult for established companies who are also forced to think way more differently. A pattern proven by the latest piece of Western thinking that the conventional CMO role is under severe threat unless connected to a constantly demonstrable P&L outcome, board rooms scurrying thus to redefine a new CXO function that integrates Marketing in Business. New-age investors also belong to the highly-impatient category and thus any strategic partner in the value chain exists only as long as there are results.
To add further fuel to the fire, the Digital revolution is also well underway not only in the narrow funnel of social media but in the context of a holistic marketing environment. For starters, the power of a historical distribution channel is rendered impotent by e-commerce, a triumph of logistics that is equally advantageous to a newbie or a veteran, in tandem with a whole series of tools that are taking the battle for wining consumers to the domain of engagement conversations that are constantly in a process of churn. A small but amplified part of this package is Digital Marketing Communications, whether banner or Twitter, where interestingly even the most loyal full-service client has been compelled to find a sharper new advertising partner, as his first-love is incapable of doing the new-age needful. Once again amply demonstrating the obvious fact that consistency and continuity are not friends but instead foes for the progressive client seeking to win big.
In this rapidly developing scenario, the big creative agency must realise that the circumstances that led to a long-term relationship with the client are not only invalid but increasingly considered to be dangerous. A focus on consistent incremental gains holding on to a foundation of successful precedence must be replaced swiftly by a more compelling adhesive, especially in the context of how the agency business has also changed. There used to be a time fairly recently when agencies maintained a corporate halo and were wary of projecting stars in tune with their contribution, attributing success to structured teamwork. In a far more open and liberal world of positive acknowledgement the real heroes are easily recognised and end up becoming, at times correctly, more powerful than the employer brands. Equally in the far more intense environment of performance, clients too wish to engage with people who matter and not hierarchies as dictated by a remunerated structure. So, when such people choose to move to a different network or set up their own value-added shop, the client sees better value in moving to people who deliver than simply a trademark that has been existing.
How does the agency as a brand not just survive but actually thrive in this environment of high transactional impact with lesser stress on emotional association? The answer lies in applying the basic principles of brand management and thus chalking out an inspiring strategy. It is plainly apparent as a client insight that unless connected to strong financial benefits, as in the case of media agencies, there is visible resistance to structured hierarchical interaction where the quality of conversation diminishes at every step. The action point for the agency being to replace its monolithic bureaucratic structures with multiple, even numerous, commando units each led by a formidable professional unconnected to seniority and capable of deriving exceptional solutions. A number of such people of quality calibre are lost in the linear maze and thus unable to add true value, forcibly disciplined by the imposed vision of a NCD. Emulating the practice of giant movie studios, surely the benchmark in imaginative creativity, every agency must invest in many centres of excellence each reflecting its unique perspective while adding back to a cohesive creative powerhouse.
The other core client insight that must be implemented is disintermediation, thus mirroring a business reality of effortless Darwinism; only those who visibly add deserve to survive. This means that the agency team interacting with the client must be led by truly integrated creative folks in partnership with strategic acumen, which can well reside within themselves or in a consumer insights planner. This effectively leads to the termination of the criminally non-value-adding client servicing function, the finest of this species easily morphing to meaty roles in client bastions or business management roles in the agency itself. The management of this new almost-open-source agency structure will require skilful P&L management led by specialists who can run businesses profitably and for the long-term, without any pretences of being surrogate creative folks. Oh yes, very critically, we must end the genre of the mainline creative specialist versus the digital exponent, through advanced training where it does not occur naturally, just as a traditional surgeon learns minimally-invasive laparoscopy.
Inspired by the culture of outsourcing in manufacturing, the world of marketing is embracing total divergence when it comes to partnerships, while controlling the main operational dynamics centrally through a tight and knowledgeable team. If the creative agency has to survive as a brand it must quickly move away from the love for convergence designed for a time when stability, consistency and minor deliveries defined the relationship. Instead get inspired by the feature film production, law and consultancy business models where a tight consortium of near-independent talented teams is led by the vision of a business-focussed P&L Board Room, clearly demarcating engineering and management as it was always meant to be. If not implemented urgently the full-service agency will disintegrate dramatically paving the path for a flurry of non-state-actors to reap the spoils benefitting from a definite client insight that is not being taken sufficiently seriously. To survive today in any business, especially the creative business, you must constantly be special else you will simply collapse and die.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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