Seven questions leaders must ask to futureproof the agency model

Source: UM
Source: UM

The past year has reshaped consumer behavior, disrupting how businesses work and driving marketers to pivot and innovate.

E-commerce accelerated by a decade in a matter of months thanks to COVID-19, causing nearly half of small businesses to close and forcing brands to rethink strategies for the future. The nationwide reckoning over race this summer prompted brands to take a stand on social issues to better balance profit with purpose.

So, when the new constant is radical, fast-moving change, how do business leaders decide what bets to make in a sea of endless – but potentially rudderless – possibilities?  

First, we must accept that the models of the past won’t work in this new reality. The way forward is full of unknowns unfolding at an unprecedented rate. Agencies can futureproof by embracing the now and the next with an open mind, while challenging legacy ways of working and understanding how to pivot quickly.

To execute on a futureproof model, agencies and clients must ask themselves seven questions:

#1: In a sea of complexity, what’s the single most important result? 

Identifying, owning and organizing around a clear North Star is fundamental to a futureproof business model.

It’s all too easy to waste time, energy and resources chasing dog whistle KPIs that drain progress. It’s more imperative than ever to decide what to chase and why, and remove impediments by designing the right framework to operate and measure success.

#2: What “next” question will matter most?

According to the Law of Accelerating Returns by futurist Ray Kurzweil, we will experience 20,000 years of change in this century alone. The intervals between those changes will get shorter and shorter, blurring the lines between today and tomorrow. 

This requires agencies to go beyond toe-in-the-water testing and lean into opportunities that lie around the corner.

Good bets allow us to transform faster and enjoy the fruits of innovation. When we get it wrong – and we will, if we’re trying hard enough – the speed and incremental nature of the journey mitigates major risk.

#3: How do we achieve growth in a sustainable way?

As marketing embraced data and technology, it shifted from a cost center to a growth driver. But there was a price: the industry’s Holy Grail became short-term ROI.

This narrow definition of success ignores the fundamentals of marketing science. It also fails to account for the consumer experience and the nuances in every individual journey. We need to reverse this trend and build upon what has been proven over time, while adopting innovations that advance growth.

#4: How healthy is your core?

The marketing funnel remains a core framework for understanding the consumer journey. For decades, media and advertising focused primarily on the upper funnel to drive brand awareness. Then came big investments in data, causing us to exercise our collective muscle against the lower funnel to bolster performance.

This has left the middle funnel – the connective tissue – sorely ignored.

With the signals and analytics we now have, we can develop a forensic understanding of how to optimize the entire funnel for growth. It’s as simple and as difficult as meeting all consumers where they are, individually. Anything less leaves value on the table.

#5: When the path is clear, are you ready to go?

Organizational transparency and simplification is crucial as the world becomes more complex.

While the intelligence arms at agencies are expanding, the underlying delivery mechanisms – structure, decision-making, process, workflow – have been slower to adapt. This is an advantage start-ups enjoy because they tend to organize around the needs of the customer, and are free from legacy measures of success.   

An agile and frictionless delivery process is as important as the intelligence itself. As Peter Drucker said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

#6: Are your stakeholders all-in?

Change management isn’t easy, and the more disruptive the change, the more complicated the task. But change doesn’t happen unless the community buys into the vision, understands the path and commits to taking the steps to carry it forward. 

Landing the vision and strategy is easy. Making it happen is the hard work.

#7: Are you paying for what you want, versus what you get?   

You get what you pay for.

Designing a commercial model that shapes and incentivizes the right behaviors and outcomes is critical. If an organization’s motivations are not aligned with its values, you’ll be paying for what you get.

Full commitment to a commercial model that is fair, logical, transparent, values-driven, and futureproof is the surest way to advance the agency-client model.

Eileen Kiernan is Global CEO at UM.

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