"May you live in interesting times."
While seemingly a blessing, this saying to many is really a curse. For agencies, certainly, these are the most interesting of times, which has many agency execs cursing about how every aspect of the agency model is challenged.
The challenge comes from the reality that marketing has been forever disrupted by technology. However, this is much bigger than just the agency business. In his now famous Wall Street Journal essay from August 2011, internet pioneer Marc Andreessen wrote "why software is eating the world" and how "every company needs to become a software company."
What he was highlighting was the macro shift from a hardware-based to a software-based economy and how there would be a broader economic and technological shift where software companies take over large facets of the traditional economy.
This was prescient. In 2018, software is not only still eating the world but it's eating it at a faster, more voracious pace. And we're about to enter the next cycle with the dawn of the AI era.
As Andrew Ng, the former chief scientist at Baidu and former head of
At the recent ANA Media conference, even
What will the agency of the future look like in this new AI era? How will agencies add value? As someone who spent almost 20 years in the agency business, I firmly believe in the value that agencies bring to their clients and I know there is an incredible opportunity ahead. However, this will require a disciplined focus on what agencies "can" do best versus what they "could" do.
1) Focus on Consumers
Technology has permanently divorced audiences from media, and agencies need to embrace the shift from media planning and buying to audience planning and buying. Audience buying will be largely AI-driven and marketers will continue to take buying in-house. That puts the focus on audience planning, which is all about understanding your audience: the consumer. Agencies need to double down on everything related to audience planning, including strategic planning, consumer insights and creative. With many marketers drowning in data, a premium will be put on agencies that truly understand the consumer with AI-driven insights that can identify the patterns in the data.
2) Focus on Simplification
Years of acquisitions and add-on offerings have made working with agencies too complex. With the rise of AI, we will see a wave of automation that will make every aspect of the marketing ecosystem more efficient and effective. Automation combined with the in-house trend creates a brilliant opportunity for agencies to focus on the things that clients will value most (and can't be automated) like planning, insights and creative. This will require a new delivery model and agencies will need to streamline how they service their clients. By becoming easier to navigate and more flexible to work with, agencies will be in a great position to deploy more of the talent that brands want and will pay for.
3) Focus on Partnerships
Agencies don't make software. They generate and bring to life ideas. Big ones. Agencies will need to make a choice on how they invest their time, talent and capital. They can choose to acquire and build their own technology infrastructure or they can choose to partner with the best-of-breed technology companies and develop the expertise to deliver better work and results to their clients. This is exactly what the consultancies are doing. The barriers to entry for AI talent are extremely high and the rapid, agile development cycles of technology will leave agencies flat-footed if they choose to build their own systems versus playing to their strengths of being the best advisor on how best to partner and connect the marketing ecosystem.
AI is transforming every business, and agencies are not immune. To thrive in the AI era, agencies will have to get back to basics by doing what they do best–solving business problems by understanding consumers and culture and creating relevant brand experiences to help brands grow. By focusing on what clients value most–planning, insights and creative agencies can continue to generate groundbreaking ideas to help brands grow.