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5 ways ad agencies are behind the times

5 ways ad agencies are behind the times Tom Edwards

I recently made a big career move to become the chief digital officer, agency at Epsilon. The transition forced me to accelerate my thinking about where the industry is going and what it takes to win as an agency in today's competitive marketplace.

In discussions about the current and future state of the industry with colleagues, we've talked about where opportunities exist to improve agency approaches to staff development, subject matter expertise, and entrepreneurial innovation, as well as the right balance between the art and science of marketing today.

All of their input helped to shape my view of the future state and where there are opportunities to win, both now and tomorrow. It's through this lens that I look at five ways agencies can be behind the times and the importance of having a clear vision and the resolve to realign organizations for success.

Digital, social, and mobile are not just add-ons

Many individuals in my professional network work for traditional, digital, media, promotional, or shopper agencies, and most are tied to strategy or planning organizations. Over the past few years, we have all heard: "Let's add digital extensions to this idea," "Add some gamification components," "Make this idea more social," and "Do something mobile." I call this tactical digital.

Tactical digital had a role in the early days of digital. Since the rise of consumer social, powered by transformational innovation such as the iPhone in 2007, digital, social, and mobile are now the primary drivers of consumer engagement not just additive extensions.

As a result, the role of digital strategy has shifted greatly over the past few years. Today, aligning digital strategy and creative to partner together is critical to delivering compelling and game-changing programs that leverage the ideal message and channel to connect with consumers. Creative still maintains the big idea while digital strategy is responsible for the automation, amplification, and distribution of the message.

With a very fragmented media landscape, if your agency does not have the consumer in the center, mapping need states and behaviors to digital behavior to connect the right contextual message and form factor, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage.

Embracing the role of marketing technologists

Many in the industry still staff their teams in traditional agency structures. This follows some mixture of account management, planning, and creative. But what is missing and absolutely necessary in today's world is the role of the marketing technologist.

This is not just a technical resource nor is this a traditional digital strategist by agency standards. These individuals have evolved to bridge technology and marketing, combining the best of both worlds. They understand the nuances of how to integrate complex elements such as SDKs or APIs while also understanding the nuances of mapping feasibility in support of the creative big idea.

This is the individual who understands how to "hack" native platforms and offer new perspectives on integrating contextual programs to the delivery model that will create the most impact. This role is critical moving forward as we head into a world that will be more system-centric than in years past.

Exclusive access and partner ecosystems

A number of my associates from various agencies acknowledge they want to own "the big idea" and "innovation" and are reluctant to understand that truly groundbreaking programs and first-of-its-kind campaigns can come through co-creation with publisher and technology partners.

This is achieved through investing in and cultivating key relationships that lead to alpha and beta access and advanced insight into product roadmaps. This is essential to stay ahead of the competition. Partners also bring additional strategic and creative resources that are deeply immersed in their platforms and can enable agency teams to seamlessly align creative ideas and themes and apply them in new and unique ways.

Although many agencies view their shop as the center of the creative universe, the fact is everyone is a publisher and a creator. Those that adjust and understand how to leverage branded content, co-created content, the integration of content into existing programs, and displaying curated content for impact have a distinct advantage when it comes to creating compelling experiences that consumers want to engage with.

Innovation as a service

I have seen a number of agencies try to implement tactics like opening an "innovation lab," doing a quick beacon test or hacking a platform to drive good PR and out-of-the box client presentations, but in order to truly transform a business, it is critical to understand how to integrate innovation into an existing, sometimes very linear organization.

This starts with having a focus on mapping to the startup ecosystem. Aligning creative teams with access to new and emerging products and organizations can lead to a breakthrough program or partnership. It's also important for agencies to have a role in the startup community. I have participated as a formal advisor for many startups over the years and have found this to be a good method to stay in tune with the latest developments in categories of interest.

In the early 2000s, many agencies carried large tech staffs to execute programs. Now the modern agency is normally very light when it comes to development and user experience resources. A large number of agencies do not have a chief technology officer or a senior tech leader who can serve as a bridge between an organization and tech heavy partners.

Also, many agencies are not set up to invest in the creation or co-creation of new products. At times, it can be advantageous to actually create a product, but most agencies are not structured to support product creation.

The final and most important point about agency innovation is having the expertise to guide clients to understand when innovation has hit a threshold that ultimately converts from emerging to fully integrated.

Proprietary data assets

There are a lot of agencies that talk about data, but the reality is only a few have proprietary data assets that cover attitudinal, behavioral, demographic, and most importantly, transactional data that can lead to personalized connections with consumers at scale.

Even fewer agencies are structured to capitalize and convert data into "smart data" that can create impact for a client's business. This comes back to how agencies are currently structured. The biggest weakness I have seen in many shops is a gap in analytics and attribution. This is critical to understand impact and, ultimately, success.

Also, there is a misconception that leveraging data is only a single piece of the planning process. With so much information being created on a daily basis and consumers sending up need-state signals at every turn, it is critical to be set up to capitalize on connections across the non-linear path to purchase.

This can be in the form of data narratives that inform creative and behavioral elements aligning channel strategy and message architecture as well as optimization of media and attribution of program effectiveness.

Having access to proprietary data as well as the structure to support the analysis, both from a human capital and machine-enabled analysis, is critical to uncover true insights that can fuel a deep and more relevant connection with a consumer.


Agencies of the future are going to be more consultative and highly dependent on technology and data. The staffing structures will need to shift from relational to knowledge-based, and those that can find the right balance while maintaining the consumer in the middle will have a distinct advantage.

Tom Edwards is chief digital officer, agency at Epsilon.

On Twitter? Follow Edwards at @BlackFin360. Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

"Retro television, old microphone from 50s and headphones" image via Shutterstock.

Epsilon is a global leader in data, marketing and technology enablement. As the Chief Digital Officer for Epsilon’s agency business, Tom is guiding Epsilon agency clients as a trusted advisor to meet the business needs of today while...

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