Aggregators, curators and uber-producers: The agency of the future is here

David MayoIn this guest post, David Mayo peers into the future to show us how advertising agencies will need to change to survive.

A marketing client told me recently that in a typical spend, 75 per cent goes to media, 20 per cent to production and five per cent to creative agency fees. She wondered aloud why there was a need for creative fees, because – as she put it – “I should get that as part of everything else I spend!”

She is probably right, and her view is being echoed across the industry.

A global client we are working with is looking for a 20 per cent increase in the efficiency of their existing marketing budget while simultaneously looking for 20 per cent cuts in agency fees. This is reasonable – not because clients are clients – but because with the proliferation of data and personal media now, it is possible.

There has never been a more powerful case for changing the model for developing commercial creativity and how we as agencies help clients deliver it, now that we are in a new automated, connected, annotated and homogenised world.

Agencies no longer own the creative process

Agencies still believe that they control creativity and the world around them. They don’t.

We know from the natural world that our fate is tied to the environment in which we operate, and not to the simple notion that doing the same thing over and over again will get us to a different place – because it won’t.

The typical client today is working fast – and spending money – with combinations of people and skills to energise and motivate their consumers. At the same time, they are training the next generation of ‘Millennial Marketers’ how to open-source their communications. A recent survey suggested that because CMOs are staying longer in Asia, they are becoming more selective with their agency combinations. They are owning the process more, rather than delegating it to a single, integrated agency.

‘Big and fast, complex and focused, large scale and agile’ all seem like oxymorons in the world of business innovation, but they are all needed from a new, more open-source agency model challenged with motivating new consumers for new marketing clients.

On top of this, agencies are now up against media owners, content producers, aggregators, bloggers and YouTubers, among many others, for creative content.

This surge of options needs to be spun into some kind of order, on one level, for the CFO to see enough sense in there to write the cheque, but more importantly for the consumer, whom we hope will respond with some kind of action that will end with a sale.

The case for collaboration is very strong, not just evidenced by word-of-mouth examples. A recent article in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review highlighted a study that showed that when companies collaborate, they earn more revenue than they would have when going it alone.

The ECD’s skills and behaviour must evolve

Within this sequence of requirements, the role of the ECD needs to change. And that will happen fast. In a recent interview with Larry Hama, the Hollywood producer of Marvel, he was asked who has the creative veto over any given project in Hollywood. He was clear – it’s the producer.

The producer selects the director, approves the cast, balances the budget, answers to the studio and in the event, takes little of the plaudits when things go well. In the same way as Hollywood no longer retains legions of talent, advertising agencies are now allocating more and more of their budget to freelance and specialist skills. This is as much a response to project working as it is to running a margin business.

If more agencies are working on more projects, this tells us something about the double jeopardy of the retainer and the clients who pay them. But again, open-source means flexibility. More importantly, however, it means bespoke, tailored, personal solutions.

From a client perspective, project work gets better creative results in theory. But from an agency point of view, better work commands better prices. Besides which, four projects in a year might add up to one retainer anyway – Same destination, different route.

Working under the Main Creative – formerly known as the ECD – it’s probably freelancers who are the force behind the innovation that agencies need to put them ahead of the alternative sources of creative solutions. The ECD therefore becomes an Uber Producer in the future, moving from conceptualising the work to developing platforms and commissioning content. It’s a significant shift and it’s happening now.

The ECD of the future – perhaps even of the now – is an aggregator. The central collection point of ideas from each specialist they work with. A curator rather than a creator. No longer the tortured artist, but now the curator of ideas, which are approved or vetoed by him/her and produced and coordinated in an open and measurable way.

Change the process and own it

This shift will affect the role of the agency in the future planning of multi-point communications as well as the place of the agency at ‘the top table’ of marketing. But change, the ECD must.

Without someone in charge to guide a campaign and to develop, present and preserve actual ideas developed by hand with emotion, the role of the producer could belong to anyone from the content provider, the media owner or – God forbid – the media company.

The danger here is that ideas and creativity will become relegated to a commodity. The most precious things in a marketer’s armoury, delegated to the best tactic. The good thing is that tactics only work if they are underpinned by a strategy, a plan and, of course, a big advertising idea.

To own this new process and maintain their role as ‘trusted advisor’ to the C-suite, agencies need to find a way to balance the oxymoronic effects of size and speed, complexity and focus, scale and agility. Agencies are traditionally very good at delivering creativity and then leaving the ‘what next’ to someone else. The ‘what next’ is what agencies now need to focus on – to complete the story and to respond to the consumer.

How can agencies do this? By being more of the consiglieri, the convener, the coordinator. By challenging the traditional model and going beyond what they currently do. This means blending skills and ways of working, becoming more open-source and collaborating across platforms from the open market to bring to the table the best-of-breed solutions. This means doing away with vertical models and embracing a horizontal one – reaching out creatively for new ways of working, that a new connected world is craving.

Agencies who build their models around the spirit and the code of collaboration will mark the future. Those who continue to integrate and pull up the drawbridge of Camelot will pay the price of obsolescence.

David Mayo is the CEO of Bates CHI & Partners Asia


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