How marketing is changing and why agencies are not keeping pace

A new survey shows neither agencies nor clients think agencies are evolving fast enough, as more brands turn to in-house skills.


Agencies are failing to evolve at the rate brands need. That is the clear conclusion of a new study into the client/agency relationship and how to make it fit for the future of marketing.

The report, by UK-based market intelligence firm Creativebrief, questioned 50 agency CEOs and 50 brand CMOs about the changing role of agencies. It found that 68% of agency respondents and 72% of brands believe that ‘agency structures, processes and pace of delivery’ are not developing at the same rate as a brand’s needs.

And at an event held yesterday (24 May) to talk about the survey results, a panel of marketers from brands such as TUI, KFC, Atom Bank and Microsoft each agreed with the findings.

The reason for this, said KFC’s global CMO Jennelle Tilling, is that marketing has fundamentally changed. She believes that while brands are still looking for cultural insights and a creative vision from their agencies, it is no longer about the 30-second ad and brands cannot wait six weeks for an idea.

“Marketing has fundamentally changed from marketing to publishing, and the pace and turnaround is so much faster. What we’re asking for is ideas but in a different shape and form,” she explained.

“We need quick pulses. We had an agency in Asia that had an idea for ‘finger lickin’ good’ nail polish. It didn’t take them 10 weeks to come up with and we didn’t brief it, they just came up with it. We’re looking for a great idea that connects and has a little story that we can tell. Our brands need to tell stories every day and that is what we’re briefing for.”

Are brands at fault?

Atom Bank’s Lisa Wood said it is key for agencies to understand the commercial pressures clients are under and the need to be agile so they can respond quickly to both the market and consumers. Increasingly, she believes marketers are looking for an “extension” of their own teams with their agencies because they don’t have time for the traditional creative process any more.

“We’ve got to change and reimagine that creative process. It might start with a looser brief but through the process we can get to a more defined idea of what we want to put out there,” she added. “The best ideas come in tangents, sometimes.”

While there does seem to be a disconnect, TUI’s marketing director Jeremy Ellis said this is not the fault of agencies. He admitted brands are struggling to work out how to talk to consumers and how to structure their teams, making it difficult for agencies.

Marketing has fundamentally changed from marketing to publishing, and the pace and turnaround is so much faster.

Jannelle Tilling, KFC

“We are fumbling our way through a world that is constantly changing. There are new conversations popping up in the consumer world all the time that you want to ride on the back of and that is quite a complicated thing to get your head round,” he said.

“Internally, you always feel that agencies should be able to provide expertise in this are and will have the answers, but they don’t for the same reasons we don’t. Everyone I talk to about structures in marketing functions says they have not got quite the right answer and that is why agencies are also trying to evolve their format in the same way we are internally.”

Microsoft’s Paul Davies, while agreeing with the survey, said he is sympathetic to the issue and that it is difficult for agencies when clients are still “figuring stuff out ourselves”. He also thinks brands are expecting too much from agencies and that they should put more value on creativity.

“The skills that are required to create a big above-the-line campaign are very different to the skills that we need for nimble, fast, speedy publishing of atomised content that we can slice and dice across different channels. I increasingly am seeing a divergence in agency land between those two skills,” he said.

“And we still need a return to the big creative idea and that right brain creativity that I worry we might have devalued a little bit of late. That is where agencies can play a massive role. Clients can’t do that bit alone.”

Is in-housing the answer?

What brands are doing, however, is turning to in-house teams, particularly for content creation. Creativebrief’s research also found that 72% of CMOs plan to in-house more marketing activity over the next three years, while just 47% of agency CEOs expected this to happen.

Ellis explained that at TUI a “significant chunk” of activity happens internally, including content creation, point-of-sale and email. And he expects there to be more of this. KFC, meanwhile, has an internal newsroom in the US from where it publishes content every morning, while the rise of content has also forced Atom Bank to go in-house so it can turn around content ideas quickly and use social to get the message out.

The skills that are required to create a big above-the-line campaign are very different to the skills that we need for nimble, fast, speedy publishing.

Paul Davies, Microsoft

However, none of the marketers think a brand should in-house everything.

“We need the talent and creativity of agencies. An in-house model can lead to brands become insular and self-serving and doesn’t give a reality check on whether we are talking to consumers and tapping into cultural trends. An agency can pull on you and keep you real and honest in terms of talking to consumers in the way they want to be talked to,” said Atom Bank’s Wood.

That concern over diversity of thought and ideas is also a reason why most brands don’t want a full-service model. Just 17% of CMOs questioned said they “will gravitate to that model over the next three years”, with 26% of agency CEOs thinking they will.

KFC’s Tilling said she finds the idea of having just one agency “dangerous” because she wants diversity of thought. And Ellis believes that while a ‘group model’ such as the one Walgreens recently signed with WPP could work “he wouldn’t want to feel tied to one place”.

“If a group feels like something that has been integrated to the point where you lose diversity and the opportunity to keep everyone on their toes then it doesn’t work,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to lose the ability to rub shoulders and have internal competition, that is where you get the best ideas and creativity.”

Having a number of agencies can throw up different issues, but Tilling said the key thing is to make sure they “talk to each other”. And Wood advised agencies not to try to be an expert in everything but to find their own sweet spots.

She concluded: “For agencies the critical thing is to find what they’re really good at and where they can really add value. An agency can’t be all things to all men, particularly because marketing now is such a diverse range of disciplines from highly creative to data focused. It would be ideal [to find an agency that can do that] but I don’t think its possible.”