What’s coming next for agencies: Ad Age Agency Report 2021
As part of Ad Age Agency Report 2021, we queried 12 leaders from across agency disciplines to see what’s changed and where the business is headed following a cataclysmic year. Here’s what they had to say.
Employment at U.S. ad agencies dropped to a pandemic low in January, down about 8.4% or 17,100 jobs from a year earlier. But agencies are starting to hire again. Are the skill sets needed for these new positions different from pre-pandemic?
“The pandemic has caused real changes in client organizations, from in-sourcing, reassessing the role of agencies and realizing the need for direct, digital-first consumer engagement. Some of these shifts have directly impacted skill sets we are bringing into DDB across North America.
“We are seeing a need for our teams to transform from account management to business leadership with sharp business accountability. More than ever, we are seeking talent with data and insight literacy to uncover creative opportunity to unlock business. And finally, we are looking for integration leads to drive cross-agency partnering and new client and agency connectivity.
“As we look to fill our desks with the best and most creative in the industry, it is important that they bring a diverse set of skills, backgrounds and insights so that we are better able to connect with consumers and find more creative solutions for our clients.”
—Justin Thomas-Copeland, who in July was named CEO at Omnicom’s DDB North America
“We’ve always hired from a range of professions—journalist, barista, Olympic athlete, you name it—but we’re now even more sure of investing in people, skill sets and capabilities that make Anomaly an ‘anomaly.’ We’re defiantly doubling down on client transformation, innovation and our own IP [intellectual property]. We also have the unexpected-yet-welcome benefit of endless learnings from remote working. It’s not just about new skills in the building, but committing to an even more flexible and distributed model outside of the building, too.”
—Karina Wilsher, partner and global CEO of MDC’s Anomaly
Ad spending is recovering from 2020’s depressed levels, and digital leads the way. What are you hearing from clients regarding U.S. media spending, and any shifts in the media mix, for the remainder of 2021?
“The past year created a moment of digital acceleration for marketers. Not just in terms of media spend, but in all aspects of the consumer experience. Now is the time to go for the bold agenda that recognizes changes in consumer behavior, changes in marketplace supply and demand, and changes in what’s possible through data and technology. Advertisers need to diversify their mix by accelerating their use of connected TV, retailer media, shoppable social and doing so much faster than they might have anticipated 12 months ago.”
—Lauren Hanrahan, CEO of Publicis Groupe’s Zenith USA
Public relations agencies
PR agencies outperformed various other disciplines last year. What made PR do comparatively well during the pandemic, and what’s the outlook for the rest of 2021?
“Firms identified as PR aren’t actually. We are problem solvers, solution providers, thought partners and counsel collaborators. Last year, we supported business leaders through the quad-demic of COVID-19, economic insecurity, financial and health inequities, and systemic racism. We spent our time sitting at the (virtual) table with the C-suite as they determined how to accelerate their leadership, take the lead, or follow with purpose. It was a perfect alignment of what we do with what businesses needed.
“In terms of the outlook for 2021, the shifts in the landscape aren’t going away. Business leaders have recognized a need to be proactive in how they communicate, what stands they take, and how they can build and inspire loyalty. Your employees and your customers expect you to engage, and not just verbally. They expect you to do something, and that’s where we come in.”
—Lisa Osborne Ross, who today moves into her new post as CEO of Edelman U.S.
Multicultural agencies: Asian American
The overall U.S. ad market is recovering as the economy rebounds. How is Asian American advertising faring in 2021?
“Advertising directed to Asian Americans is rising and will continue to grow in the months ahead. Digital advertising, marketing and activations continue to grow at a healthy pace, and we expect even more marketers to allocate budgets to the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population: Asian Americans. The challenge for us and other multicultural marketing firms is finding talent. We have a number of openings and the market for talent is fiercely competitive.”
—Bill Imada, chairman and chief connectivity officer at IW Group
Multicultural agencies: Black or African American
Marketers are facing pressure to spend more money in Black-owned media, and some advertisers say they will increase spending. Will this translate into more business for Black-owned ad agencies?
“The real issue for our agency and the brands we consult with is how we can best leverage the brand’s investment in understanding, representing and connecting with Black consumers to contribute to systemic positive change. In practice, this usually requires a reframing of the significance, impact and business-building opportunities created when our clients authentically invest in understanding needs/issues, enriching opportunities and securing more equitable treatment for Black lives/communities. We welcome media partners that share our values and are working for positive change.”
—Carol H. Williams, CEO, chief creative officer and president of Carol H. Williams Advertising
Multicultural agencies: Hispanic
When do you expect to see actionable data on the Hispanic market from the 2020 census? Do you foresee big surprises in that data, or do you expect market forecasts pretty much have anticipated what the census will show?
“The census data is one of many sources supporting Hispanic market shift understanding. While it’s an important exercise linked to community resourcing, it boils down to checking static boxes and doesn’t necessarily reflect the cultural shifts we’re seeing in society today.
“Culture is fluid and people seamlessly navigate many cultures and subcultures, even daily, because self-identity is multidimensional across all markets. Our research shows that facets of personality—fun-loving mom, as an example—can sometimes even outrank ethnicity as markers of self-identity among U.S. Hispanics.
“We believe that unpacking those markers truly fuels meaningful and actionable insights and gives us a deeper look into the U.S. Hispanic audience than the census data will reveal in its current form.”
—Tachea Corbett, group strategy director and cultural intelligence lead at Publicis Groupe’s The Community
Experiential and event marketing
Last year was uneventful, and not in a good way, for experiential and event marketing amid the pandemic and lockdown. What are you seeing for the rest of 2021 and into 2022?
“We view 2021 as a bridge year. There is no time like the present to redefine live [events] as we take an omnichannel approach with in-person and online events. According to our latest event research, 75% of attendees expect to return to in-person events by the fall, and booked business proves it as we bring back furloughed employees to meet the increased demand.”
—Janet Dell, who last November was named president and chief operating officer of Freeman
E-commerce clicked with consumers during the lockdown, but consumers may be ready to venture out again as the economy opens up. What’s the near-term and long-term outlook for brick-and-mortar retail?
“What’s in store for the physical store is anyone’s guess. What we know for sure is that everyone now knows the convenience of buying online. What we also know is that the younger born-mobile generation, Gen Z, craves physical and has no interest in going all-digital. However, they bring with their desire for physical retail experience much higher expectations, and demand to remain connected. This requires more than an evolution. It requires a revolution in design, in purpose, in size, in role, in key performance indicators. But physical retail when done right remains the ultimate manifestation of brand.”
—Beth Ann Kaminkow, global CEO at WPP’s VMLY&R Commerce
What is the most significant lasting change to come out of the pandemic in terms of what consumers expect from brands?
“Over the last year, we have transformed how we lead our lives and evolved our values, creating new expectations from the brands and businesses with which we engage. In fact, 95% of consumers said they’ve made at least one permanent change to their lifestyle since the start of the pandemic. Brands and their leaders are also recognizing these shifts: Nearly 80% of CEOs say they will need to change how they engage with and build trust with their customers. For brands, this sums to an experience renaissance that’s forcing a reimagination of everything to meet their customers’ new and evolving needs.”
—Baiju Shah, chief strategy officer at Accenture’s Accenture Interactive
Health care agencies had a great year amid a surge in pandemic-related communications. Does the sector face a looming post-pandemic pullback?
“The pandemic made ‘every decision a health decision,’ and brands of all stripes had to take a page from health care marketers in their communications. Health remains at the forefront of consumers’ minds, and after more than a year of lockdown, ‘pandemic procrastination’ is finally coming to an end. Patients are beginning to schedule everything from Botox to cancer screenings, and health care communications will continue to grow and play an essential role as we emerge into a dramatically altered health care landscape.”
—Susan Manber, chief patient officer at Publicis Groupe’s Publicis Health
“The entrepreneurial spirit and ‘Never Finished’ attitude that are at the core of FCB Health Network were the basis for our success in the chaotic environment of 2020. We stayed true to who we are—focusing on our business, our clients, supporting each other, all of which started well before the pandemic and will continue long after. Health care communications will continue to evolve—opportunity is everywhere, the need has never been greater and there’s much to be done. We are just getting started.”
—Dana Maiman, president and CEO of Interpublic’s FCB Health Network