Will The Marketing Agency Of The Future Look Nothing Like The Agency Of Today?

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Nearly twenty years ago, the agency of the future seemed very obvious.

We launched our digital marketing agency (then it was called Twist Image, now it’s called Mirum) in 2000. We had a clear objective: we wanted to create the agency of the future today. Our mission seemed obvious (to us, at the time). We felt that technology had not permeated the marketing department. We knew that marketers were – candidly – afraid of technology. They did not understand the Internet. They did not grasp the power that these connections would create. At the same time, there was a power struggle taking place as the IT department did not want to relinquish control of these websites to marketing, and the marketers were tepid to take it on (they did not want the liability should there be issues relating to security, data, etc…). That power struggle endured for many years. Still, we believed that the agency of the future (back then) would be a digital-first agency. That has come to pass. Some might argue that the battle between marketing and IT still exists in many organizations. The reason may *seem* logical enough: the marketing department is (mostly) creative. Let them focus on the branding, messaging, communications, advertising, etc… and let IT handle the “heavy lifting” of the platforms, hosting, infrastructure and delivery of the digital communications. Arguments could be made on both sides. Still, digital as a primary channel to connect with consumers is true and continues to grow.

What if marketing… and marketing agencies… should no longer focus on just the creative output?

There is this ongoing (and vibrant) debate about the future of the agency. It may seem like a dire conversation for the more traditional agencies, but even those with “digital” in their descriptor are seeing some big shifts. First, when it comes to the online channels, consumers see loyalty in a whole new light (check out my article from yesterday: Consumer Trust Is Not What You Think It Is These Days). Second, brands have a much higher expectation for what their agencies should be delivering based on a myriad of developments from analytics to procurement to business transformation to c-suite demands and beyond. Third, simply being great at creative and/or strategy has become commoditized in our world. This doesn’t downplay their critical importance, but saying that your marketing agency has the best creatives or the best strategists rings hollow, in a world where these talents are shifting from agency to brand side to consulting firms to platforms to publishers to competitors at a dizzying pace. There does not seem to be a lack of talent, skill and knowledge in the marketing industry these days.

What you offer today is not what brands are in dire need of. 

Forrester Consulting recently published a report titled, The Future Of Agencies, that was commissioned by Adobe. This is a two-part report. One focuses on customer experience and the second is focused on data-driven marketing. It’s no surprise that these reports both bring to light the need for marketing agencies to build better strategic alliances with technology partners (the report was commissioned by Adobe, after all). With that, the messaging is both clear and scary. For a marketing agency to be successful in the future, it must make customer experience mapping and engagement, data-driven marketing and marketing technology core to their offering.

Agency’s have one role: to make the brands that they represent as awesome as possible in the marketplace. 

This is not as simple as it seems. It’s going to take more than a viral video or a strong email list to make this go. And, after reading through both of these reports, it’s not unfathomable to say that the majority of marketing agencies are not only ill-equipped to deliver on these needs, but it would require a dramatic shift in staffing, positioning and their core business model. Yes… it’s not so simple. 

Here’s what the research says about what agencies capabilities must be:

  • Agencies can’t just keep pace with marketing technology, this needs to be a core competency.
  • Agencies must have strong technology partnerships (with companies like Adobe, Marketo, Acquia, Salesforce, etc…) and layer on top of it innovative services. Brands will favour agency partners that have a true working and integrated relationship with the technology providers.
  • Agencies need to provide superior customer experience strategy, mapping and deliverables. Brands are shifting their marketing dollars from advertising to customer experience.
  • Agencies will need to bulk up on content marketing, web/mobile development and advertising technology not as stand-alone centers of excellence, but how these services integrate and deliver against real metrics and goals.
  • Agencies can’t just position themselves as experts in this space, they will need to demonstrate how they build, nurture, capture and extend these experiences. This will be more important than telling brands that they are either a full-service agency or a specialist.
  • Agencies can’t just talk and sell data. Analytics, personalization, testing and optimization are not just dreams of the future. The technology is here to do this – in a cost effective way – now. These tools drive new customers to brands and helps to retain the older ones.
  • Agencies need to get better (much better) at figuring out how to integrate the various agency partners’ results. Someone must understand how all of these agencies and all of their datasets fit together. Right now, there are plenty of gaps, and this results in less than stellar results for the brand.
  • Agencies will not differentiate on strategy and creative. Don’t shoot the messenger, this is what the report’s key findings were. 

The agency of the future…

According to Forrester, the agency of the future will differentiate on data and technology. As the need for these technologies and services continues to rise, the agencies that succeed will be the ones who are truly “cross-channel data experts who create new sources of value for clients through strategic technology partnerships.” Candidly, is this what you signed up for? Is this truly the future of successful marketing? Where does strategy and creativity fit in this business model? Are agencies merely going to be relegated to the world of being a VAR (Value-Added Reseller) like the consultants and developers of other business technology platforms? Does this even sound like what a marketing agency means to you? This should be both exciting and terrifying at the same time.

How does your agency stack up? Do you believe this to be the true future marketing agency business model?