Thursday, September 17, 2009

We don't predict the future, we help to shape it.

Image: Yuma

“The possibilities for this industry are limitless if we stop focusing on making ads—and bring big, bold, game-changing business ideas to our clients.”

Jeff Graham, Account Director Crispin Porter + Bogusky

Agencies are under a lot of pressure. Changed media behaviour – happening in more complex ways on more channels. Small target groups in social networks. Brands in the search of interaction and dialogue instead of monotonous monologue.

Most agencies offer "360 degree comms" – knowing how complicated it is to get the relevant message to the right audience. Some go a step further - positioning themselves not merely as a „painter, but an interior designer (sorry - this is in German) that takes on a much broader view on the brand and its offering. And coming up with solutions that not neccessarily are within communications.

Earlier this year we saw a broad public discussion within German agency management. Some took a clear position - and either would love to fall back on their core compentencies within the field of advertising - such as Ogilvy-Manager Strerath. Or they are thinking into the future - and plan to offer „creative business consultancy“ such as creative head of DDB Germany, Amir Kassaei.

There might be good reasons for both positions. As well as a market. Because it is quite uncertain to predict a complete move away from classical advertising. Too many people still sit in front of their TV at night and seem to enjoy passive entertainment - instead of endless brand conversations online. But the landscape is changing - not from today until tomorrow. But step by step. And with a speed that agencies do not seem to keep up with in "real time".

Bob Garfield, provocative AdAge writer, offers a true „Chaos Scenario“ for the media landscape and explains that this will be the death of agencies as we know them. But someone needs to produce and publish communication content as Jeff Goodby describes nicely in his Garfield book review.

No matter if it is about evolving the current agency model or the big leap towards a "creative business consultancy" - both can only be an answer to current client needs.

Needs that agencies do not seem to fulfill sufficiently. At least not, if you look at the 2008 Sapient Survey, offering a marketers „top 10 wish list“ to agencies. Next to the digitial knowledge and actual usage of it, the main factor is „consumer knowledge“ and strategy. Aspects that agencies today do not seem to reflect and integrate enough in their work:

„Agencies that understand consumer behaviour: 67% deemed this as an important/ very important aspect of their agencies expertise. ....Demonstrate strategic thinking. 77% of marketers ranked strategy/ brain trust capabilities at the top of thier agency wish list.“
Sapient Survey Sept. 2008, with 200 US CMWs and senior marketing profs

Forrester research points out similar factors (also readable within the blog of Forrster analyst Peter Kim) and cited one marketing executive, describing his agency not quite as the business partner that they obiously aim to be:

„(todays agencies are) a necessary evil, rather than
a strategic partner to grow his business...“

Forrester points to the main reason that will drive change within the agency business: a growing mistrust in marketing messages. And still according to Forrester, the agency model is not dead:

„I don't think agencies are going away ...
they’re going to be the ones that help marketers to
communities of mutual interest.“

According to them media and creative agencies will still be build arround the mass modell: either producing or distributing messages. And even though digital agencies are more up to date technically, having build their business around interaction, they lack the branding skills of classical agencies.

So what does a changed agency profile outside of pure communication development mean?

A new market and new fields of work call for competencies.
Away from being a pure communication service that develops campaigns according to client briefings. But thinks outside this box. And will be asked to do so. But: what actually can agencies offer as such a service? Which kind of consulting service? Will agencies define pricing- and distribution strategies? And compete with the McKinseys out there?
This can be doubted - as their future field of work needs to be somehow connected to the agencies core competencies. Consulting can only be done in a field where they can provide true knowledge. That would be the brand and the context in which brands exist today. Being more than purely about customer needs and wishes - but about the cultural context in which brands exist.

„Our focus should be not on emerging technologies but on
emerging cultural practices“

Henry Jenkins, Professor of comparative Media, MIT.
Author of Convergence culture: When Old and New Media Collide

So it is not (merely) about a thorough integration of technological competencies -as most agencies already have that. But about a better understanding of culture. And thus human behaviour. The classical field of work for planners.

Changed markets need new structures.
Agencies today are in most cases still having a traditional structure (at least here in Germany). On the one hand there is the account people, on the other the creatives. Add a few service departments, such as producers, media know how and a bit of planning. The agency management is in most cases a team of creative and account. Will management be able to build a new positioning for the needs of the future with this current "two-pillar-structure"? In general it can be expected that the changed communication and media landscape will need a change in agency structure as well.

The view of Forrester on agencies also reveals that they seem to be simply structured wrong in order to take up the challenges of tomorrow - and the need to change from „Message Making“ towards an establishment of „Community connections“. What Forrester describes as the „Connected Agency“ does not just know specific communities, but is an active member in these groups. Away from push-messages towards „voluntary engagement, and ongoing conversations (that) would replace time-based campaigns.“ Meaning agencies will need to be able technically, to connect. But also to know and use these communities, analyze and use their communication habits and motifs. Not just the plain reachability and proximity to people will have growing relevance - but also a true usage of this.

The step towards a broader service has already been made by some agencies. The question is still if the focus will be on the development of communication solutions in the future. Or if they should not approach business issues on a broader scale, not purely thinking in communication as potential solutions.

The planning department within many agencies today is already doing much more than pure campaign planning. Planners are partners for marketing divisions and are often briefed on broad questions across a variety of brand issues. Developing brand models, positionings or any other intellectual service connected to the often rather theoretical part of brand management, but also coming up with product innovation ideas - a planner can often provide a great additional perspective through his outside view and his insights on consumers and culture. And planners even take over whole projects around brand issues, not only efficiently structuring and managing them, but leading the team towards a solution that is not merely driven through an advertising perspective.

Looking at the number of planners that we have in Germany today (apprx. 300 according to the apg member list – and maybe there are another 50-100 that are not organized anywhere) – and compare this size of planning departments with the size of creative departments or account personel one question comes to mind: who will actually drive the re-positioning of advertising agencies in order to deliver "creative business consultancy"? The annual planner survey by international DDB planner Heather LeFevre gives some interesting information.

Planning today is not a leading discipline: within planners from full service agencies planning was only mentioned as "Leading Discipline" by 14% .
Quelle: Planning Survey 2009 von Heather LeFevre

Planning departments only seem to make up about 5% of agency employees (missing actual numbers, but the Planner Survey shows that many departments currently only have 10 or less planners) and in many cases they neither lack work nor are they under risk to be laid off. So will this be done by copy writers, art directors and account people on their own?

We only have a future with an investment into the future.
Planners today not only work in classical agencies. The discipline has already grown out of traditional agencies - and is on its way into the DNA of other agency formats and disciplines. With a move towards planning and strategy as a way of thinking within the overall agency business there is at least a move towards one of the above mentioned client wishes.

Agencies that today offer a great environment for planners can mostly be found within the English speaking world. What also seems to be apparent within these agencies that they have an outstanding level of creativity in their work. Creativity and planning do not seem to collide, but compliment each other.

Planners are passionate about their work –the survey shows that the number of those that more or less love their job is continiously high (more than 80%).

But they are wanted and they have high expectations - the job needs to be fun and offer the chance to develop and shape agency content. If this is not the case, planners move on. About 38% are actively thinking about a job change - and about a third has actually made the move within the last 12 months. In search for a new challenge planners do not seem to be looking for long - the actual crisis in the agency job market does not seem to hit this discipline as hard as others.

Smart agencies will therefore invest into their needs of tomorrow. Educate planners. Create a job environment that motivates to stay and shape the future. With a perspective that is content driven - and beyond. Not every planner wants to lead, but most want to co-create and shape the business offering of their agency.

There will not be the one agency model for the future.
The agency world will be as complex as the target groups. A number of different formats will offer creative and strategic services and consultancy. Agencies will consistently change with the market, new offers are added. Who will make the offer will not be in focus. But the quality of the work. This needs to be at the same time strategic and creative, and move beyond the field of communication, in order to truly be "creative business consultancy".

And there are examples today on how and by whom this can be done.

Well positioned agencies have integrated planning as their "third pillar" - and are prepared to offer a true positioning as "creative business consultants". The international agencies that where named in the planner survey seem not only to be places where planners enjoy to work - but where it has an integrated role - and their current work in the market shows that they are capable to do stuff outside of the classical ad routines. Some agencies go a step further - building up indepentent strategic consultancies, such as the German Strategy Group by Scholz & Friends.

Internationally there are more examples - that not only position themselves as communication services with planning or are evolving the traditional agency model into the future. But concepts build from scratch with new structures and offerings, that are more open in their approach, mainly looking for solutions. Planning seems to be a logical interated part such as "digital" . Examples are Space150 in the USA with brilliant planner mind Paul Isakson as Head of Strategy. Or Zeus Jones - with the founders having a background in planning, making strategy an integrated part of their work and defining themselves mainly via brand activities ("actions speak louder than words") and apart from that display an extremly high degree of technological competencies. Or Anomaly, that position themselves as Business Development Partner ("blurring the borders between providing traditional marketing services and working as a business development partner.")

In Germany we currently see mainly strategy consultants, with a focus on the strategic, less on the creative side. Such as &Equity. Diffferent. Musiol Munziger Sasserath. Sturm und Drang. And some more. There is room for more offers that show a true networking between creativity, technology and planning - defining solutions, not merely campaigns.

Even if the future will not be called advertising – planning will be part of it.
In the end it is all about commuicating with people. About brands and products. Even if we will not call it advertising anymore.
Quote courtesy of Paul Isaksons Blog

Planners will need to understand cultural context and human behaviour and put this knowledge to work in order to create resonance.

„In a shifting world, what is the business that we are actually in?.....account planners are in the business of changing behavior and creating belief – making people care and buy into something bigger than them. Brands have to build resonance with consumers“.
Suzanne Powers, Global Strategy Director der TBWA und Teil des US-amerikanischen
4A Account Planning Committee auf der 2008er Account Planning Conference

4A president Nancy Hill underlined this in the aspects that she highlights about planners:
  • they respresent what advertising can and should be – now and in the future
  • they have embraced digital platforms more than any others
  • they are „consumate hoarders“ who aggregate everything in order to understand the world around them
  • they recognize that this is a business of ideas and ideals. They take ideas to a higher level and aim for ideals.
  • their job is about thinking ahead, moving things forward and embracing change.

That is why planning will help shape the future of agencies. As creative business consultants in search for product- and brand ideas. Or just to come up with communication solutions that are relevant for people and truly reach them. I ad agencies. PR- media or online agencies. Or how ever the agency model of the future will be called.

(as I am not a native speaker this translation might have some weird language constructions. Pls forgive me for that - and I hope the content is still clear...)