Note: this piece first appeared in Campaign in October.
Change can often be a shock but not a surprise. We love to talk about "black swans", but shifts in society, culture or business often announce themselves a long time in advance, if we know how to listen.
Our industry is no different. The narrative of media agencies as lumbering giants is flatly wrong – there are few sectors with media's track record of evolution and reinvention. It's happening again, driven by changes in technology, consumer behaviour and client need – but it's easy to miss the signs.
When things change, our response is often to look for patterns from the past rather than signals from the future. This may explain the recent spike in industry commentators asking whether we're returning to the era of the "full-service" agency after years of increasing specialisation.
I'd like to suggest that the change is real, but the analogy is wrong. The future isn't full-service, it's modular.
The connected customer experience goes beyond media
The traditional agency model, of offering a fixed scope of high-class outsourcing that doesn't change for years, is simply no longer sophisticated enough to suit the demands of today's clients.
That isn't just because clients have changed – it's because the world has changed.
The experiences people have with brands are more interlinked and less predictably linear, and this creates challenges and opportunities.
Marketers now have to look at the whole consumer experience journey, finding ways to get advantage out of each part without losing sense of the whole.
If that sounds obvious, it's because it has been coming for years. Any business that isn't organising its marketing around people, journeys and outcomes is behind reality.
The response from brands has been gaining momentum for some years. Most brands are fusing together brand advertising with performance marketing and bringing customer relationship, service, subscription, membership and digital behavioural data into the mix.
Marketers have long been frustrated with the fragmentation of the agency market into narrow, specialist service providers.
Being able to offer an opinion or service relating to only part of the picture may have worked once; now, it's a recipe for gaps and overlaps.
The re-engineering of brands' operational requirements, unified through data, is now bringing matters to a head and is forcing the media and advertising industry to respond.
Clients need agencies without boundaries
In this context, planning and buying media can no longer be a distinct stand-alone discipline. It is now part of a complex landscape, connected with content creation, influence, technology design and build, consumer engagement strategy, data creation, experience design and performance measurement.
Just to make things more exciting, we are nowhere near a settled answer to what the marketing function of the future looks like.
A fixed "full-service" scope is a risky bet, and a constellation of specialist agencies means you spend too much time managing your agencies, not focusing on your customers.
Clients need agencies without boundaries – ie an agency with many specialisms, along with the ability to assemble them and evolve them fast according to client needs. To become an agency without boundaries, you need to move on from focusing on service silos to understanding how to move people from a passive brand relationship to action.
And of the old breed of agencies – from creative to digital, CRM and branding – it's media agencies that have shown themselves the most able and willing to evolve and adapt.
When WPP created Wavemaker, for instance, we were asked to design the agency of the future now. It's not often you are given a challenge or an opportunity that big.
We decided from the outset that Wavemaker should not be another media agency in the mould of those that had come before, but a new model focused on unlocking growth by finding opportunities in people's paths to purchase and the huge array of influences on that.
Every one of us is on a perpetual journey in relation to many different brands. We see, engage with or ignore these brands in 100 different ways every day. The beginning of a journey may take years, days or minutes, or it may never start.
If it does start, it may take months of media, content or tech nudges, inspiration, persuasion and reflection before it reaches a conclusion. Or it could take 30 seconds from discovering a need to clicking "buy now".
Looked at this way, the scope for creativity and invention is boundless – from inspiring affinity with a brand to delivering a double-digit sales uplift in a matter of hours. But it requires a unity of service provision, thought and action to achieve meaningful impact.
Removing service boundaries has not only meant that we can align ourselves with a client's business strategies more completely, but it has unlocked our business model.
Media agencies are uniquely able to adapt
Clients are asking for flexibility, speed, problem-solving, rapid innovation and delivery. Inevitably, many briefs are not simple media planning and buying retainers; they could just as easily include a consultancy project or a content development initiative.
Rather than being marginalised, media agencies now have an incredible opportunity to enhance their relationship with brands as a business growth partner rather than a media service provider.
Historically, media agencies have shown themselves uniquely acquisitive and flexible in terms of absorbing skillsets and expertise across strategic planning, media performance technology, customer insight, content development and data utilisation.
You can see the difference in the diversity of skillsets and backgrounds in our teams. The mix of people involved in our agency and across the media agency sector as a whole is dramatically different from even two years ago.
I expect the breadth of expertise and delivery offered by agencies to continue to grow, reflecting the radical changes facing clients as they continue to digitise their business operations and respond to people's changing desires and needs.
Agencies have been, and always will be, a reflection of clients' needs. Technology has changed how brands and people interact profoundly. That's not sudden, but it's important.
Marketers need agencies to respond to this and help them see and act on the whole customer journey.
# Alex Steer (21/06/2020)