“The answer can’t start with marketing”: behind the new agency-client relationship


Agencies and their clients benefit from a symbiotic relationship that, when it works, results in work that neither could create alone. Is the relationship between these two parties evolving towards a deeper and broader collaboration? And if so, what does that mean the industry is demanding of its agencies and their workers right now? We sat down with six experts from The Drum Network to find out.

This almost seems true by definition: the job of a marketing agency is to help brands market what they do and do.

But in our recent conversations with marketers, another truth has emerged: the relationship between brand and agency is changing, with top agencies making their presence felt far beyond the traditional marketing mix. They get involved earlier, we’ve heard; and being asked to solve problems not only by marketing managers, but by all departments. They work collaboratively on briefs that not only target marketing activities, but also organizational and product changes. They are asked to find and solve deep problems.

As Cassy Waugh, Customer Services Manager at Nucco sums it up, “the problems we solve are not just marketing anymore”.

“It’s incredibly complex for customers”

What caused these changes? The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have been an accelerator – as brands woke up to a changed world overnight, they turned to marketing partners for guidance. But our panel says the underlying conditions run deeper. It’s a tough world for brands: ever-proliferating platforms; an endless array of tools behind these platforms; and a multiplicity of levers to be operated behind the scenes. “It’s incredibly complex for clients — your typical CMO has to know so many disciplines,” says Nick Myers, Oliver’s chief strategy officer. “What they want is to be able to talk to fewer people who have knowledge about more things.”

This is the crux of the matter: as marketers have learned about planning, strategy, design, and implementation (especially with digital assets), they have become that single partner. Meanwhile, these same technological developments and knowledge have also been applied to the work of marketers. “There was this idea of ​​the creative piece as fluff,” says Wilderness general manager Jamie Maple. “We deal with clients who are as informed [as us]. They just don’t have the in-house scope to cover what they need. It’s a good thing for us: you get more information from them and you are able to have more collaboration. »

These two factors combine to create this new agency-client relationship – and our panel couldn’t be happier. As Niki McMorrough, Relevance’s UK Commercial Director, explains, “We go back to the real definition of marketing, which is finding a market opportunity, coming up with a product and bringing it to market. It’s so much more exciting than, ‘Can you invent a campaign to whip this stuff up?’ It’s a bit late in the day for it to be exciting.

Ts and πs: the form of the agency’s expertise

In short, the explanation is simple: brands turn to agencies where they have expertise that can help them. This leads to a simple lesson for agencies: “Deep expertise is real value,” says Haseeb Shaik, director of digital transformation at Adapt Worldwide. “Expertise” here doesn’t just mean technical know-how or prowess in the field, but an ability to “connect the dots”, says Shaik: to understand the wider ramifications of a lever, the proverbial wave releases with every beat of a lever. wings of the butterfly.

For agencies and the workers they employ, it informs the shapes in which the world asks them to contort. For teams, says Myers, the key is “fit”: the ability to adapt the size and shape of the team to the environment; Oliver’s internal model is of course a route to this kind of flexibility.

For workers, McMorrough says, the criterion of expertise calls for “generalists to become a bit more T-shaped” — that is, broad generalism based on an amount of deep knowledge. Even better than the T-shapers, Shaik says, are the π-shaped workers with two distinct pillars of expertise. (Presumably, triple or quadruple pillar people would be even better, but are harder to find. And, to stretch the metaphor, the challenge after finding them will be to intertwine the horizontals so that all that deep vertical knowledge joins the web wider to live.)

In many cases in today’s ecosystem, these deep wells of expertise will be technical: data or development, for example. Depth is necessary, explains Richard Arscott, co-founder of Revolt, precisely because the ultimate problems that manifest as roadblocks in marketing (or elsewhere) are themselves deep. “The answer can’t start with marketing,” he says. “You have to go back to the infrastructure of the organization…You have to have deep experience in the domain and a goal to then make changes to the infrastructure.”

A future lack of expertise?

The demand for expertise has led, according to our panel, to another change: in the people they employ and put in front of customers. “The requirement is for experienced people…and less juniors,” says Waugh. And while working on larger, more strategic files, Arscott says, “Senior executives have enjoyed returning to practitioner roles.

It doesn’t take much to spot an imminent risk to the industry, says Waugh: If agencies stop attracting and nurturing young talent, where will the next generation of expertise come from? It’s up to the industry to decide.


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