It has been a while now that the single big mainline agency is no longer considered the agency of choice for clients, more and more so in the creative space and, to some extent, in the media space too (particularly where digital media is involved). I would not say that it is digital alone that has triggered clients to look beyond their long-serving agencies but it is the rapid change that digital has played in the 'where' and 'how' consumers live and, therefore, how brands need to behave to reach and impact them, that has certainly shattered the calm for the behemoth agencies of old.
So, who are clients working with these days alongside their big agencies? - A motley bunch of specialists and generalists who have the smarts to understand the real challenges clients face and the speed and wherewithal to deliver answers that work. And often at a fraction of the price the mainline agencies charge. The ones who are biting off healthy pieces of the marketing pie include:
Consultants and advisors: These are folks who think strategically and, more importantly, understand the fast-increasing number of moving parts in the marketing engine for a brand as well as the interplay between them and help clients make choices as to what to use and how.
Tech firms: Not only do these carry the can for the big-ticket digital transformation stuff clients seek but they are fast expanding into the turf of mainline agencies. It is probably just a matter of time when the largest media and advertising firms will be owned by big tech firms.
Publishers and content companies: At one point, publishers (media) were where ads created by agencies were placed. Now, with increasing frequency, publishers help create ideas and campaigns for clients, leaving mainline agencies grappling to protect their turf and their retainers. Specialised content companies have sprung up too and by adding quality creative resources to their erstwhile production capabilities, they have become wholesome creative partners to clients.
Creative individuals: Not your usual agency type, but just folks with creative talent with a strong streak of entrepreneurial imagination to extend their talent to chomp into the brand budgets of marketers. These individuals could be musicians, cartoonists, poets, chefs you name it. In a world where brand-speak is taking on greater user-hues, it makes sense to get regular users to tell a brand story rather than an agency writer or so clients think and their budget splits seem to bear out.
It is not all doom's day for mainline agencies. Neither is it necessarily a time for champagne for the new claimants of the attention and marketing moneys of clients. And it is not all hunky-dory for clients either as they are far from having found their ideal partners. If anything, everyone is in a state of churn. What? Who? How much? When? These are just some of the questions everyone is seeking answers to.
What is important is to accept the new norm of finding and working with partners. Then look at the opportunities to make it work from your context - as a client, an agency or as a specialist who has come late to the party.
Since the whole is now split into many parts and it is increasingly difficult to make the parts work smoothly in tandem, clients must seek support from a "conductor" who will help make the pieces play as an orchestra and make music for the brand. These conductors aka consultants, can advise clients on choices to make and once made, how to keep it going. Another good approach for clients is to limit their exposure. Fewer is better than having too many fragmented partners. Working with a smaller set of enabler agencies and people not only gives everyone a better piece of the marketing pie but also helps grow their commitment to the relationship with the client.
Keep a part of the marketing budget to experiment. The changing landscape of digital and marketing is throwing up new ideas and business enablers all the time. Having the budget, agility and appetite to experiment can be the difference between marketing success and failure. Again, to understand which shiny new toy to play with, clients could turn to outside help to make better choices.
They need to reorganise themselves to become more agile and open to new opportunities, new collaborations, new ways of delivering value to clients, and creating value for themselves.
Some of the bigger agencies are playing the "integration" card. Yet others are looking to disintermediate their offerings through the creation of a bouquet of options for clients to choose from. Some are looking to partner with specialists and generalists who can help make sense of the opportunities out there and to credibly present a face of expertise to their clients. An agency model still in its nascency is that of the "collective", a loose amalgam of specialists and experts that come together to answer client briefs.
What does the future hold for agencies? - More partnerships, often fluid and flexible collaborations that come together when required to serve clients and their specific requirements. Think horses for courses rather than a conventional agency structure. Also, watch out for PR agencies, the smarter of which will start owning a greater piece of the pie of a client's marketing attention and budgets. They will use smart collaborations to move from being media relation specialists to becoming creative and communication partners with a seat at the big table of marketers and CEOs. The days of the bits-and-pieces, something-for-everyone digital agencies will be numbered.
Micro channel expertise and management across the digital spectrum will lose its sheen as the ambition of brands shifts and they demand partners who can ride with them, rather than see their marketing problem through their own narrow micro channel lens.
Being the cool flavour of choice for clients will not turn specialists into an enduring choice. What is important for success is to first be very good at what you do and then work smart by aligning and partnering with mainline agencies looking for a new lifeline with their clients. And then there's building a cohesive voice that addresses clients' needs and finally, most importantly, delivering on them.
"Expertise... Alignment and partnership... Delivery... repeat" Will be a good mantra to live by for specialists. Another trend will be that of select specialists playing advisory roles client-side and guiding the cocktail of partners and agencies to work together to deliver for the client. But remember, focus on outcomes and not inputs is what will serve clients and keep agencies, specialists and hybrids in demand and in business. The most valuable currency will continue to be ideas; ideas that are at the cusp of consumer behaviour, data and technology and media; ideas that will work in these dynamic digital times and keep the ecosystem of clients, their brands and partners humming smoothly along.
(Ashok Lalla is an independent Digital Business Advisor and tweets at @ashoklalla)