Sure, agencies can look at all the technology changes, media shifts, industry turmoil, and business challenges they are up against and feel nothing but stress and pressure to meet the needs of the dynamic audience. But that's not how Bryan Weiner, CEO of 360i, chooses to view the opportunities presented to agencies during what he refers to as the golden age of the agency.
"It's time to leave the pessimism behind. This represents an unprecedented opportunity for agencies to become indispensable marketing partners," said Weiner in his Agency of the Future address at last week's IAB Ecosystem conference in Carlsbad, Calif.
So what's holding agencies back from reaching their true potential? For starters, Weiner explained that the industry needs to get better at keeping up with customer and technology demands; yet, the current agency structure hasn't evolved at pace with media innovations, which makes it difficult for even the most innovative of marketers to push new ideas through. "The advertising holding company structure hasn't changed; it's still a television-centric advertising model," he said. This leaves marketers with two sub-optimal choices -- work with traditional agencies that don't necessarily have the necessary skills to deliver on digital campaigns, or work with a plethora of specialized agencies, which is difficult to coordinate and align across multiple platforms and projects.
Beyond the internal factors are challenges coming from the audience itself. As we all know by now, consumers have taken over the direction of brand communications on many platforms. On top of that, the media platforms themselves have also changed in both form and function, fragmenting more and more as new media come onto the scene. These behavioral and technology shifts are causing a dire need for innovation; yet, as Weiner points out, the system wasn't built to be adaptable. "The interactive agency model disincentivizes greatness and fails to penalize mediocrity," he says.
Yet the fact remains: Advertising is about getting consumers to be product and service advocates. To be able to do that today, agencies need to find innovative solutions, and do so at reasonable prices.
To illustrate the need for affordable, consumer-centric innovation, Weiner related the example of "Amanda," who was shopping in a Barnes & Noble store. Amanda found a book she wanted, but before purchasing it, she took a look at a shopping comparison app on her iPhone. After finding a better price online, Amanda purchased the book from Amazon.com through the app while she was still standing in Barnes & Noble.
"This is happening increasingly every day. Consumers have near perfect access to product and price information," Weiner explained. "There now needs to be a value exchange between consumers and brands through advertising. Think about how your property can serve as a conduit for deeper interactions between brands and consumers; otherwise you just become an interesting way to interrupt them."
A view of the future agency
As Weiner sees it, the model for the agency of the future doesn't exist yet, but marketers can help create it in their own environments by focusing all their efforts toward meeting client needs. In turn, all business will need to play their part in allowing new digital technologies to take center stage in all strategic endeavors. Digital would be front and center, though there wouldn't necessarily be a bias toward it. "The new agency would need to have traditional buy and plan capabilities, but these don't have to be the centerpiece of every campaign," he said. "As agencies we should be focused on providing value and staying true to our special sauce, by asking what our clients need today, and determining what we need to do to provide it. What we do for brands is too core to the brand's future to remain on the periphery for much longer."
In reorganizing priorities to create this agency of the future, a few core capabilities will emerge:
- Agencies must excel in using the internet as the world's largest focus group/research tool.
- Search, social, and mobile must be integrated into every agency's DNA.
- Agencies need to be platform agnostic, and brands provide the freedom for us to do so.
How to get started
Weiner outlined three communication behaviors that are vital to refocus all agencies on the goals at hand:
- The best defense is a good offense. Today, individuals have power over shaping brand perception, and these brand reputations are being affected for the long term -- not just short term. Marketers need to embrace strategies that touch consumers where they are and in an ongoing way. "A brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room."
- Build committed relationships; not one-night stands. Continuous conversations must trump one-time brand campaigns. Establishing an emotional bond is critical for success.
- The agency of the future needs the client of the future. The siloed model just doesn't work anymore. If marketers want to rapidly and radically impact change in the marketing ecosystem, it starts with how you allocate dollars. "Marketers can force this change with their pocketbooks."
Being a winner in today's marketing space will require innovation. Regardless of how intimidating that can seem, the penalties for not being flexible and opportunistic might be severe. Weiner motivates his team to constantly innovate by reminding them of the famous quote from General Eric Shinseki, (former) chief of staff of the U.S. Army: "If you don't like change, you will like irrelevance even less."
Jodi Harris is senior editor at iMedia Connection.