Teenagers can be pretty socially awkward at times. I have two of them and their communication skills can sometimes be both painful to watch and fascinating at the same time—although they have the best intentions, vital pieces of info either get lost in the shuffle or never make it to the right person. Unfortunately, oftentimes it feels like déjà vu when I see brands and agencies trying to plan their marketing campaigns.
In 2015, 157 top executives at agencies and advertisers from the North American Effie Awards similarly reported that creative direction was the main reason brands hire agencies. Additionally, more than half of client respondents and 35% of agencies reported that they would like each other to increase involvement with business strategy moving forward. While both sides nodded heads on improving their relationships, neither could easily identify the path to get there.
How can agencies become a more strategic business partner? The answer is similar to advice I give to my teenagers to keep things fresh: stay honest, bring creative new energy to the relationship, and leave the ego and petty BS at the door so you can focus on the things that really matter.
Be Honest -- Push for Better Business Data Transparency
While brands keep short-term sales numbers close to their vests to varying degrees, agencies need to better paint the business-driven benefits of gaining holistic access to channel agnostic objectives and results. For example, an agency should make a case that, if armed with its regional bank client’s customer account growth by branch and account size growth by customer segment, it can more cost-effectively develop and execute a highly targeted regional campaign that reduces customer acquisition costs.
In return for new business insights, agencies need to demonstrate their facile ability to leverage expanded business insights by elevating their strategic game in executive conversations. As another example, if a cosmetic brand opens up the kimono to local sales in key DMAs nationwide from the previous quarter, the agency needs to jump on the data and follow up with comprehensive analyses and proactive recommendations on how the brand can optimize its integrated marketing strategy to maximize sales. In diligently driving these types of opportunities, agencies then become not just a creative shop or siloed media buyer, but a true business partner.
Bring Energy -- Take the Reins and Drive the Long-Term
At 4A’s Transformation conference, Michael Fanuele, chief creative officer, General Mills commented that agencies need to, “show their clients how their brand can kill it in the world.” He added that, “too many agencies wait for convoluted briefs to execute, as opposed to creating a vision for what a brand can be and the work that helps a brand become that. I want agencies to lead us, not serve us.”
First and foremost, agencies need to reduce the busy, administrative work they spend executing near-term initiatives and become more selective about client projects. This allows them to free up headspace for long-term, big thinking. Even just infiltrating agency culture with minor productivity initiatives like this can be game changing.
From the beginning, agencies need to set the tone for building a high impact brand with an impeccably relevant vision before diving into tactics. For example, start a client kick-off meeting with a traditional publisher by presenting an entirely new brand strategy—help the company see itself as a relevant entertainment brand that dynamically satiates consumers’ increasing need for fast-paced, on-demand content. Then throughout the engagement, agencies should continue to push the envelope with strategic ideas that can radically transform and integrate consumers’ experiences. The acceleration of smart connected devices and virtual reality are just a few emerging trends spawning green fields of opportunities.
Stay Focused -- Reduce Organizational Friction and Build Champions
Oftentimes internal politics, company culture, timing, and budget can severely hamper a brand’s ability to properly execute an extraordinary vision. For brands, looking in the mirror naked can be hard if you’re out of shape and sales are flat, but brands that are honest about their shortcomings and receptive to change and critiques, reverse course faster.
Agencies need to tap into these sensitivities head on, and find creative ways to reduce or eradicate blockers to achieving success. Early on, agencies should establish with the brand a collective commitment to change and invest in the transformational, and potentially painstaking, processes required. For example, prior to an engagement an agency should clearly explain the types of investments (e.g., staff resources, time) needed to ensure success. From my experience, engaging commitment from a core team of executives throughout an engagement—usually no more than five no matter how large the brand—can significantly bring strategic initiatives to life. Small is nimble. Nimble is effective.
By becoming more entrenched in brands’ data, aggressively setting the long-term agenda for brands’ vision, and pursuing initiatives that reduce internal organizational blockers to innovation, agencies have the power to swiftly become brands’ irreplaceable business partners.