Times are hard in the marketing and advertising world and there seems to be consensus that things won’t be getting easier. The old agency model is on the road to extinction, but no on seems quite sure how to survive. There is agreement that agencies need to adapt and transform from “integrated ad agencies,” to some new type of organization that is defined by broad thinking, flexibility and a more strategic approach to problem solving. The problem is that this sort of thing is easier to talk about than to achieve. Becoming skilled in conversation marketing, insights generation and digital marketing requires more than the addition of new skill sets inside the agency, it requires a fundamental shift in how we think and operate. Whether you are an agency trying to reinvent yourself or a company in search of a more effective vendor, it is more important than ever to think about how you will promote your brand in a meaningful, sustainable way.
Doing that means working less on a one-sided story and more on creating experiences. Experiences invite participation and engages people on emotional, rational, and cultural levels. They inspire people to drag their friends along and share the experience with the world. Experiences can exist as a webpage or phone app. But doing this requires a different kind of thinking and an agency that is willing to throw off its typical processes and embrace something new. So what are agencies to do?
1. Change the structure of the team
You can hand off elements of an engagement from team to team, but the result will be a continuation of the same old thing. If you want to conceive and execute powerful customer experiences, you need the researchers, creatives, strategists, and interactive designers working hand in hand throughout the entire process. Hand-offs result in muddied interpretations and siloed thinking. Getting teams to work together and share ideas in an iterative way is absolutely essential. This means developing teams based less on function and more on their passions, flexibility, and willingness to communicate in an ongoing way. This means getting everyone involved from the start. It used to be that everyone waited until the creative team emerged from isolation with the ”big” idea (the message, the spot, the tagline.) If you get everyone working together from the day one the solution will be more than an ad, it will transcend any one medium.
2. Be genuinely interdisciplinary
Having a broad set of skills on which to draw does not make an agency interdisciplinary. Not everyone needs to be an expert in every discipline, but they need to understand the basics. More importantly, people need to feel comfortable sharing thoughts and ideas without fear of being dismissed by others. They need to be encouraged to have a voice. One simple way to do this is to have client team members sit and work near each other, not in departmental sections of the office. Don’t isolate departments. Another way to encourage this is to have a shared work space, such as a wall, devoted to sharing ideas and insights. This encourages people to engage in a discussion rather than falling back on the old, familiar way of doing things.
3. Start with the user, consumer, etc.
It may sound obvious, but putting the user, consumer, or target of any stripe at the heart of the solution is crucial. This is easier said than done and it is easy to forget who the user is when we work in isolation. Anything we create, be it a product, an experience, a campaign, or a business strategy, starts and ends with the person, or persons, we’re trying to engage with. This means understanding a customer’s relationship with more than the brand. It means understanding how they view the world, the multiple reasons behind why they shop, what their social networks are, etc. In other words, start with what is important to the user in the broadest sense and create according to how your brand fits in with their identity and cultural norms.
4. Re-think the creative brief
The creative brief is a relic. With the exception of a few tweaks here and there it has remained unchanged for years. It clarifies the question, “What do we want to say?” but it rarely asks why we want to say it or what the consumer wants and needs. It is better to answer questions like, “How will we create brand advocacy?” “What things does the customer need to hear from their point of view?” “How do we get people to participate?” “What does the brand mean in the context in which it will be used?” Asking those sorts of questions moves the end product from simply being clever to being smart and relevant.
5. Become a learning organization
While human beings are hardwired to explore and learn, we also have a tendency toward complacency. We get in a pattern once we learn how to do something and tend not to deviate. But with the proliferation of technology and social media networks, increased globalization, and the pace at which access to information is expanding, it is imperative that everyone in an organization always be in a learning mode. This means cultivating a mindset that fosters and rewards learning and going outside individual comfort zones. Create a library, take creative fieldtrips, get the organization to explore the world instead of sitting in an office. The result is more collaboration, fresh thinking, and greater engagement by the members of the team.
What it all means
In the past, audiences were fairly captive. They were largely passive consumers of advertising as they read the paper, watched television, etc. The model was simple: buy attention and you will eventually convert someone into a consumer of your brand. But in a postmodern world of global branding and social media, companies can no longer simply buy attention. The best crafted brand stories may be memorable, but only if someone hears them. You may create a commercial that creates a truly phenomenal amount of buzz, but it means nothing if that buzz isn’t relevant and doesn’t produce revenue growth. As consumers become more inclined to co-create the brand through speaking, blogging, sharing ideas, and adopting brands as part of their public identities, we need to move from simply telling stories and hoping the audience will listen to getting others to engage with the brand and telling the stories for us. In other words, we need to engage our audience in a much more interactive, discursive way.
For agencies that will thrive in the emerging market, gone are days when you gave the creative team surface-level research findings (or simply a clever idea), wrote up a brief and hoped for something revolutionary. Many beautiful campaigns were developed, to be sure, but that didn’t mean they were relevant. This is even more true today. Today, agencies have a wide range of disciplines on any given team (anthropologists, illustrators, interactive gurus, strategists, etc.), but this broad set of skills and perspectives means little if they don’t know how to work together in a way that departs from past processes.