The year ahead for ad agencies

James Murphy
James Murphy

With clients seeking shops able to deliver strong brand thinking executed seamlessly across channels, the return of the full-service agency is upon us. By James Murphy.

Agency positionings come and go like footprints in the sand, leaving little lasting impression. Recently, we have become tech-makers, storytellers and content houses: expressions of both the industry’s progress and our obsession with all things new as events around us ebb and flow.

Above and beyond is a more fundamental shift, something that’s destined to have a greater longer-term impact on what we do. In making predictions for 2015, I’d confidently point to the renaissance of the full-service agency. It’s a rebirth that is already under way but will truly flower this year due to client demand and the ability of agencies to offer powerful brand strategy allied to seamless delivery across channels.

It has been talked about before. But, this time, I think things are different. A new set of planets are aligning.

First and foremost, this is a client-driven shift. Senior marketers are increasingly pushing for their brand custodians – typically their advertising agencies – to anchor their total brand experiences. Never have I heard the concept "lead agency" bandied around by clients more than now. The lead agency model, where one strategic shop marshals the thinking of a group with specialist skills on behalf of the client, is an inevitable step towards a return to fuller service.

Second, this is also something that the creative community is pushing for. In the past, the creative departments of agencies have been the most resistant to new media and ways to interact with audiences. Not any more. Young creative teams live in a different world, embracing technology and media actively and wholeheartedly.

Third, we are all starting to see that specialist skills work best for a brand when they work together, seamlessly. And no matter how well agencies might claim to collaborate with each other, there are seams that fundamentally exist between them – cultural differences, profit motives and timing gaps that are hard to bridge.

And, finally, the good old consumer has a say here too. Never have they more effortlessly switched between technologies and media. They have no understanding or respect for different agency or client models. They expect a single brand experience, no matter how they choose to engage.

The shift to ‘fuller service’

The realities of modern brand building will therefore involve joining the disciplines and introducing an incredibly strong strategy from the centre. In Campaign in December, I mentioned Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s retention of the British Airways account and how it felt like a meaningful moment for the industry.

Meaningful because it was the result of an agency that is renowned for its brand-building expertise investing wisely in digital capability and then entering into a partnership to add real direct and loyalty experience. A clever solution to address a client requirement for a broader range of services from one agency partner.

Other agencies have invested in stretching their service offerings – Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO launching a retail marketing arm, for instance. The trend is especially evident when it comes to investing in digital services at the "main" brand agency – so prominent that Campaign asked: "Is it the end for digital independents?" back in October. Digital-only reviews had fallen by 17 per cent, according to research from AAR, partly because "digital" had become part of a broader brand strategy rather than a standalone route to the customer.

All this activity points to a shift towards "fuller service" as clients look for a greater impact from their key strategic agencies. While there’s an element of back to the future about this, we should feel energised and upbeat because it potentially means that agencies will occupy a more interesting place in terms of relationships with clients. A fresh, exciting place that makes "renaissance" seem like the appropriate term to use. We’ve absorbed learnings about channels, technologies and complexity, and are now in a better place to deliver strong brand thinking and strategy executed seamlessly across channels.

Clearly, there will be winners and losers in all this. The renaissance will benefit agencies, and people, that are capable of combining great brand thinking with clever, agile implementation. In this scenario, specialists with narrow skillsets are likely to feel greater pressure and, if not discarded, then increasingly left near the periphery as relationships become increasingly integrated.

Profound relationships with clients

These emerging agency arrangements also reflect corporate trends. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Mondelez International are just three major corporations that have looked at creating simpler, streamlined corporate structures and brand portfolios, selling off brands, collapsing internal departments into one another and focusing on marketing support for their "star" products. This move towards a joined-up approach within client organisations naturally has an impact on the demands made of agency partners.

Specialists with narrow skillsets are likely to feel increasingly left near the periphery as relationships become increasingly integrated

For evidence, just look at the many brands that have rationalised their agency rosters to partner with fewer suppliers and build stronger relationships with those that remain. This consolidation has the potential to fuel a focus on brand strategy because it benefits agencies that are able to ally brand thinking with better implementation. It signals a return to more profound relationships between brands and marketers and their key strategic agencies.

However, there’s a potentially large negative aspect in all this due to the procurement pressures exerted on our clients. More integration among agencies could see procurement looking to get more for less. While there are serious conversations to be had around placing true value on great thinking and creative, let’s be realistic and acknowledge that clients now require clever, efficient delivery as well as our amazing ideas.  

And what impact on creativity?

The full-service renaissance has significant implications for creativity. Already, our role is much less about showing off a big piece of creative work to a brand than providing a detailed, working campaign that exists across all channels. With Volkswagen, we work across an entire connected customer journey, with a clear, focused strategy keeping it all together. Not to mention a seamless team managing a process that requires everything from broadcast to digital delivery in terms of both web design and e-commerce. For John Lewis, long-form video may be the highest-profile parts of what we create, but we’re also making e-books, apps, social media activity and digital retail experiences. This requires great strategic firepower allied to an ability to deliver.

The new era of integration

This type of client relationship is the embodiment of a new kind of integration. The "I" word used to be thrown around to describe ads that resembled direct marketing or digital but has come to describe a situation where "above-the-line" is redundant as we move to providing "across-the-line" solutions for our clients. However, this does put the "traditional ATL" agencies in a strong position because they have a higher calibre of strategic talent capable of delivering ground-breaking thinking coupled with outstanding delivery. That’s why I think we’ll see a continued invigoration in the big agency brands, not only DDB but also the likes of Grey, Leo Burnett, Ogilvy & Mather and TBWA.

Undoubtedly, this makes it difficult for those considering start-ups. It’s a harder proposition to launch an advertising agency now than when we launched Adam & Eve. We noticed even then that brands had started to want their agencies to do more – part of the reason for our initial investment in media and communications planning thinking. I’m not sure that, if we were starting out now, we would have the resource to provide all the firepower required under one roof.

However, for those that do possess this firepower, the fuller service structures, it’s an exciting time. Brands now require, and are asking for, great strategy from their agency partners. In 2015, we will have the thinking, the creative brilliance and the resource to deliver this.

James Murphy is the founder and chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB


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