What You'll Need to Build the Agency of the Future

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In 2010, the CEO of an upstart digital agency was asked by the IAB to predict the future of advertising agencies and how they needed to adapt if they wanted to be around 10 years from now. Rather than give a eulogy, the thesis of that talk was that we were on the cusp of the golden age of advertising and that agencies could and should play a critical role in helping brands transform their marketing.

Well flash forward six years, and I'm reprising this talk at IAB Mixx during Advertising Week. Then as now, there was deep pessimism about the future of agencies and a clear implication that agency survival was an open question. Then as now, in spite of things being far from perfect, I am very bullish on the opportunity and need for agencies to play an essential leadership role in the future of marketing.

There is both peril and promise for everyone in this industry whether agencies, media owners or brands. In the last six years, consumer behavior has continued to change exponentially, to the point where two of the most dominant platforms -- Instagram and Snapchat -- didn't even exist when I first visited this topic. And yet the infrastructure at most clients and agencies still feels heavily analog. Marketing, as a profession, is in real trouble if we keep letting consumers lap us.

We are all competing with anyone and everyone. In addition to challenges, this chaos and disruption breeds opportunity. Competitors -- whether client, agency or media owner -- don't have a manual any more than you do. Agencies can help brands win in this environment of chaos -- if the right ones are chosen, and managed well.

While there will undoubtedly be more than one model for success, a lead agency of the future must have at least these three core areas of expertise:

Storytelling that earns attention
The internet was supposed to be the death of brand advertising by bringing all the world's information to everyone's fingertips in nanoseconds. The opposite has actually turned out to be the case. We are flooded by so much information that our brains are fried, and we are craving an emotional connection to not only the products and services we consume but also the companies that make them. The new challenge is to create an emotional connection with consumers in a digitally led, on-demand environment.

Agencies needs to be experts in both ascending and descending storytelling in order to connect to audiences on different platforms in different mood states. Ascending storytelling has its traditional story arc with the climax coming near the end of what has typically been a 30-second spot.

But in a thumb-scrolling medium, brands have seconds to earn attention or be swiped away. So flowy narratives simply can't get the job done in areas like social, or mobile-first media. This is where descending storytelling comes in, by ripping a page from a journalist's notebook. They tell you the essential information in the headline and the lede paragraph and they have seconds to convince you to continue reading the rest of the article. And whether you do or not, you have at least gotten the general point of the story. This approach to storytelling must be part of a creative's arsenal as well.

Data-driven approach
Big data might be the most over-used word in our jargon filled industry. Agencies need to be skilled at uncovering some game-changing insight and then use that insight to create programs using near real-time data. In other words, this can't be survey data from two years ago. This capability also needs to be core across the entire agency -- not just the realm of media and search -- and not outsourced.

Digitally led but not digitally limited
It's time for a few industry buzzwords to be retired. For example, the antiquated distinctions of digital vs. traditional agencies and the artificial and counter-productive boundaries between paid, earned and owned. The agency of the future must be able to do strategic planning and measurement cross-platform with a channel agnostic business model. The work is just better when we act this way. Operationally, agencies need to have the ability to create different bundles of services based on client needs rather than what services we have to sell.

This is not something that can be wallpapered over by making splashy hires or placing a new agency brand name on a collection of individuals put in a room together for a pitch. It's a transformation of the entire company inside and out, top to bottom.

This does require some planning in pencil. Consumer behavior will change, platforms will rise and fall and marketing capabilities will emerge as mission critical from nowhere. Annual planning cycles and long term deals are inadvisable.

For these three reasons (and probably a few more), clients should be on the lookout for agencies that are bringing these thoughts and actions, and for agencies whose vision does not get in the way of the client's vision. But before entering into a relationship, it's critical for marketers to look in the mirror to unlock the most success.

There is a saying in the business that clients over the long run "get the work they deserve." Smart marketers greatly increase their chances of breakthrough work through co-creation of their agency ecosystem, clarified roles and responsibilities and selection of agencies that are adaptable enough to lead and succeed in a constantly evolving world.

The future will be messy but bright for the winner and deadly for the losers. Marketers and agencies that adjust their models in partnership will drive tremendous value for their organizations and drive the future of marketing through the chaos.

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