A Look Ahead: 3 Emerging Agency Themes in 2018

The agency world is living through tough times. The bloom is not only off the digital rose, its rot is starting to smell. Gone are the days where companies could sell media of questionable quality at a premium. And procurement is at too many meetings, sucking up time and grinding agencies on price.

Marketing departments on the client side are being cut back but asked to do more. They, in turn, are demanding agencies do the same. Retainers are rare, and every job becomes competitive. That draws talent toward “beauty pageants,” and away from doing good work for clients.

Meanwhile, agencies are increasingly having to compete with consultants like Bain and McKinsey — who are promising return on investment. “Bain says gives us a $1, we will give you $25,” says Cossette’s Daniel Shearer. Meanwhile, he notes that award-winning agency Saatchi and Saatchi’s website promises “we will build you Lovemarks.” Guess which one procurement favors?

Out of the darkness, light

But all is not bleakness. A recent American Market Association (AMA) event in Toronto entitled A Look Ahead: the Marketing Landscape in 2018 suggested some positive ways forward. Introduced by Maru/Matchbox’s Matt Chong — President-elect of AMA Toronto — and moderated by Alex Panousis, the event featured talks by five leading thinkers in the agency world: Daniel Shearer of Cossette; Andrew Simon of Edelman; Colleen Peddie of Bensimon Byrne; Steve Waugh of Giants & Gentlemen and Matt Lewis of Momentum Worldwide. From their talks, three critical themes emerged.

Agencies, according to these speakers, need to:

• Remember they are in the business of telling powerful stories that connect to the culture;
• Demonstrate value and resist bad procurement;
• Open the door for diverse and culturally relevant voices to be heard.

Powerful stories that connect to the culture

Stories are the heart of every human connection. That has long been the focus of advertising, but with the move to digital and the shortening of videos to 6 seconds, the focus on stories has been lost, speakers suggested.

“We’re in the midst of rapid, crazy technological change,” observed Steve Waugh. “We’re getting a little caught up in how things are changing, and thinking technology is a solution. It’s a tool,” he emphasized.

“Focus on the things that don’t change” encouraged Daniel Shearer, quoting Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing” suggested Waugh, quoting the 19th century critic and writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. In both cases, they were pointing to the importance of focusing on storytelling and not being seduced by tactical digital options. “Over-automation” warned Shearer, “loses the storytelling and the humanity.”

But these were not Luddites railing against change. “We respect tech…we understand it…but it is not going to differentiate us” explained Waugh. “This is about people, and a strong brand and sales,” Waugh said. “Things have not changed a whole lot. It’s the way it has been delivered that has changed.”

The more it changes, the more it is the same, indeed.

Demonstrate value and resist bad procurement

“Clients are questioning value specifically in the big agency process,” said Matt Lewis. That’s putting a lot of pressure on agencies to demonstrate their cost benefit. Procurement’s grinding on costs is undermining value, Andrew Simon suggested. He called for agencies to resist this trend, explaining that “by undervaluing our product, you are undervaluing our industry.” “We need to stand up for the commercial value of creative” and “push back on bad procurement” Shearer recommended.

But that doesn’t mean agencies should be unaccountable. Shearer challenged agencies saying, “don’t sell hours, deliver outcomes.” And he encouraged people to stand behind their work suggesting, “if we truly believe we are better than hours…lets put our money where our mouth is.”

Collen Peddie was confident of the value of good work. “Do everything else right and financial success will follow,” she suggested.

Open the door for diverse and culturally relevant voices to be heard

“Agencies are losing their market position because many have lost their connection to culture” Lewis declared. With the push to focus on scale and efficiency “we’ve become too similar to our clients” he suggested. Being out of touch with the culture has led to disasters like Pepsi’s Kendal Jenner debacle, according to Shearer. “They lost the context,” he said.

Hiring the right people and giving them a space where their voice is heard is critical to staying culturally relevant, speakers agreed. “How do we make sure that there is the ability for people to share thinking…the diversity of opinion in how to get our message to the market?” Shearer wondered. Waugh suggested that one reason for the success of indie upstart Giants & Gentleman was that “anyone can have a voice…sometimes it is a junior person who can have a lot of relevance.”

“Hire for entrepreneurial spirit” and diversity and then empower the staff, Peddie suggested. “We become our best when we …set people free.”

A look ahead

As the agency landscape is reshaped by forces beyond its control, these thought leaders pointed to positive ways ahead. One of the encouraging changes we have seen is agencies getting more involved in owning insight and strategy. To learn more about how Maru/Matchbox is helping agencies chart a positive path forward, check out our agency-focused e-books In the pursuit: a survival guide to insights and Fueling the pursuit — using insights to win or contact us.

This article was written by Andrew Grenville, Chief Research Officer for Maru/Matchbox and was originally published on the Maru/Matchbox Blog.

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