In order to answer the question of how agencies are evolving to meet clients’ needs, I need to unpack a few issues on the direct marketing industry.
You see, there’s a question which has stumped me for a long while now. Do agencies evolve to meet their clients’ needs, or do clients adapt to agencies’ plans? Chicken or egg?
Of course what we all want to believe, and what we try to achieve, is an agency product that we believe clients want to buy. No, strike that – it’s actually more emotive than that. It’s about what clients really need. What will turn their business round and make them more successful? It can bring a lump to your throat if you’re not careful.
Too many chiefs?
But what about the superpowers? The chiefs that run the five main agency groups. Are they, and ultimately the shareholders, the ones who really shape and define our agencies? What about the charismatic few who are brave enough to start up their own agencies – do they shape the landscape for clients?
If you look back in time, it seems to me that agencies merge and demerge like a rising tide that waxes and wanes with the economic moon. It seems to be about marriages and affairs of convenience rather than a whole-hearted integrity to clients’ needs.
Turning back the clock
A look back in time illustrates this point. In the early Nineties, there was a spate of spawning agencies. The good and the great were leaving their stable, big agency jobs and starting up their hotshot new agencies. Barraclough Hall Woolston Gray and Craik Jones were two examples of this. The result was billed as a new era of young, shiny new thinking; nimble and bold; taking the bigger agencies head-on. The reality was that perhaps, with the prospect of a booming economy, there was a chance to make some money.
Of course, these types of agencies were very good. That goes without saying. And what they delivered was a service that had lower overheads, and therefore was cheaper – and potentially faster. (Although secretly I think that’s a myth, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?)
And then, during the late Nineties, the threat of economic decline meant that smaller agencies started to sell themselves to the superpowers – and the superpowers started to tidy up their groups. Remember Grey Integrated and Grey Direct in 1998, Tequila and Option One in 1997, EHS and Brann in 2001, or even BHWG and Clarke Hooper in 2001? Buying new agencies was advantageous to the supergroups as it bolstered their offerings – and tidying up meant greater economies of scale. Many holding companies at the time claimed that mergers were not just for the sake of neatness, they made sense from a client (and agency) perspective. And, at the time, there was a strategic rationale for taking an integrated approach to clients’ brands, with many notable successes – and this worked well for the supergroups.
And as for today – what’s happening now? Well, as we see early signs of economic recovery, once again we see a clutch of fresh, new start-ups. Count these among the many – Keevil Lee Kershaw, Ping and Elvis. Once again, all promising a better, quicker, cheaper service – all promising to deliver better returns and results for their clients.
Who is meeting whose needs?
The issue I wrestle with is this: if you believe agencies evolve as a result of self-interest (agency partners, superpowers, shareholders and so on), then what are clients to believe in? How do they make choices between agencies? How do they know if agencies are evolving to meet their needs, or the needs of the agency?
One place to start is to ask clients what it is that makes agencies different; they are usually stumped. They tell us we are all “much of a muchness”, which is depressing when so much time and effort, awaydays, brainstorms and flip-chart paper go into dancing on the pinhead of differentiation.
However, what clients do say about what makes us different is our people. Good people.
What they are looking for, they say, is sound strategic thinking to solve their business problems in an imaginative way. This, in essence, is what evolves. Not shape and structure.
It’s what you do with what you’ve got
So, if we then look at how this thinking is evolving, some important themes are emerging. The first is that it’s not about what you have; it’s what you do with it. As agencies, we get caught up with talking to clients about our departments and structures. In fact, it was “de rigeur” not so long ago to present centres of excellence in terms of disciplines. The trouble is, the client doesn’t give a jot about this. What they want is for their agencies to answer their heartland problems with appropriate brand solutions. However we choose to do that is up to us.
The other important theme that we need to focus our strategic thinking on is changing customer behaviour. At Proximity, this is the brief we give ourselves. Only when we unpack the belief systems and attitudes that underpin current customer behaviour can we understand what levers and techniques we need to use to change that behaviour for the success of our clients’ brands – in the most imaginative ways possible. And this leads us to some interesting places.
It leads us to impacting on areas of our clients’ businesses that are a long way off from the original “direct marketing agency” template. Areas that are not determined by how many people we have in each of our specialist departments or whether we have adopted the latest brainstorm technique (although these things have a place in our hearts).
This is what it’s about. For the clients reading this article, I urge you to follow the emerging trends that are of most importance to you – the ones that belie the latest structures, mergers and breakaways. The trends about people and their thinking and creative capabilities. Because shape and structure, as we have seen, is determined by economic and personal agendas, but thinking is where it is really at. And, by the looks of it, the strategic thinking powers of agencies are evolving beyond the traditional direct marketing boundaries and are starting to be pivotal to clients’ brand success. This is great news for clients. But, it is also great news for agencies, as it gets us to focus on the important stuff.
Amanda Phillips, business development director, Proximity London
2004 Business development director at Proximity London
2000 Managing director of McCann Relationship Marketing
1996 Chief operating officer at Joshua
1991 Group account director at WWAV Rapp Collins
1987 Direct marketing executive at AXA Equity & Law