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Chew a mental pencil on the future of the advertising agency and you can imagine just about anything.

There are plenty of buzzwords that hint at the changes ahead: Internet-centric, market-of-one, multimedia, multidiscipline, multicultural, integration, infotainment, globalization, convergence. If I just string these together into a few interesting theories, I could pontificate with impunity -- the more outrageous and provocative, the better; nobody ever checks back on these things anyway.

Instead of daydreaming about how we will be sending ads through e-mail implants and smart "everythings" -- toasters that tell you what bread to buy via ad-vicements -- let's bring it back down to something more scientific, like evolution.

I take a Darwinian view of the agency business. Darwin argued that the environment challenges each species to find a way to survive; the process was called adaptation.

I know nothing with as much certainty as this: The agencies that will thrive in the next century are those that best adapt to the monumental changes taking place in the marketplace today.

Thinking about the future is not an exercise driven by an accident of timing. It's a necessity; clients tell us so.

Just tune in to the ever-increasing din of agency criticisms. We are too big; we are too small. We are not fast enough; we don't take enough time. We aren't strategic enough; we aren't creative enough. We can't deliver integrated communications; we're too distracted by integration. Pick anything we do, any way we do it and you can find a critic for it. Don't be misled; it's a self-canceling litany. The specific criticisms are symptoms of the problem, but not the root cause.

The issue is not the relationship agencies have with their clients. The real relationship we need to be concerned with is the one between our clients' brands and their buyers. What clients need desperately are not ads; they need customers, and they need us to deliver them.

The brand/consumer relationship is no longer a one-sided affair in the control of the marketers.The future of advertising is all about reaching the right consumer, and doing so via a whole range of points of contact.

Being consumer-centric is not just about adding a few account planners or better research. We need to acknowledge how the world has changed for the consumer, and how that, in turn, alters the way brands are conceived, built and sustained.

Let's just start with technology. By the year 2004, e-commerce will be a $3 trillion enterprise. That's not in some distant future; that's a tsunami practically upon us. Technology is irreversibly transforming the commercial world, and both the transactional and communication patterns within it.

Obviously, this means new and different streams of media, and an exponentially increasing volume of commercial messages. We see already the impact this has had on customer service, channels of distribution and retailing. The dot-coming of America is just the beginning. As other countries come further into the infrastructure of technology, we'll see this trend on a global level.

What I'm getting at is the technology allows us to animate the brand/consumer relationship, giving it real-time exchange. In this world, the agency that survives will not be the one that keeps turning up at the client meeting with a 30-second storyboard solution for the marketing problem.

On a profound level, to build the relationships with the consumer the brand must become increasingly experiential and fully surround the consumer -- what I call "360 degree branding." We need the consumer to be experiencing the brand -- even the most basic ones -- on multiple levels. Our job is going to be providing the right brand experience.

This means managing and creatively leveraging vast amounts of data plus consumer insights, and then delivering the result as an experience to the consumer in whatever medium is most effective, be it via the Internet or on e-mail, or on the Super Bowl, on the telephone or in sponsorships, in the showroom or the store, in the news or in the court of public opinion. Our task will be to make sure the brand is strongly, skillfully, creatively evident in every point of contact.

This has implications for the agency business, and we will have to change accordingly.

We will have to assert the brand strategy leadership that is our historical legacy -- and our secret weapon. This means we will have to have the people who are smart enough and multidisciplined enough to deliver it. We will have to have technology wizards who understand brand, and brand wizards who can think at Internet speed, as well as creatives who are driven marketers and marketing strategists who care passionately for creative product. (How we get these people does keep me up at night, but the agencies that survive will find them, make them or both.)

We will be big. Pooling our resources has been going on for 30 years, and this will not abate. The difference is that we will not be pooling to cut back on office costs -- rather, we will pool our insights, our strategic abilities and our creativity.

In that regard, we will have to be more creative at every level, whether it be the 30-second commercial or the kiosk or the sponsorships or the licensing deals. We will need a much more diverse population to get that creativity; multicultural environments must rule. We will need to put more money into training, and more time and effort into retention. People with the best people win, always.

Can we do it? Can we make the transformations needed to survive? The alternative is the route of the dinosaurs. I suggest that the business of Agency Next will be all about putting the theory of evolution into practice.

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