Tsar Wars – big agency v plucky client

the battle between agency and client

The battle for control between agencies and clients draws near

In a galaxy not far, far away: Brand Activation, Content Marketing, Automation, Accountability and Client Training are about to do battle on an epic scale for control of the marketing and communication industry. The shape of the relationship between clients and agencies is about to undergo a rethink. If things go the way of the agency-dominated model, we will see their dominion increased and clients returned to the dark days of intimidated, budget-providing-bit-part and subservient bystanders. If power shifts in favour of clients, it will bring to an end the tyranny, unfettered greed and arrogance of the imperial agency role and the blinkered interests of their trade association allies. If things go the way of customer interest, the two factions will have to find new ways to become truly media-neutral and customer centric. They will have to develop more collaborative, transparent, flexible and, perhaps most of all: authentic ways to profit from serving the nuanced needs, wants and desires of audiences in the always-on world.

Brand activation

This strategic battleground is where the agency is most at home. Being able to call upon ‘objective’ agency support helps clients make decisions about customer insight, marketing mix and comms activity. But how objective is that opinion when the agency is far from media-neutral and rarely customer-centric? These days agency culture is often shaped by the needs, wants and desires of the influential individuals working internally to deliver to the overarching financial objectives of external stakeholders. Try as they might, even the brightest and the best creative enterprises are subject to the demands of sales and profit targets, the development of CV content and the constantly diverting struggle between briefing and developing the bread and butter work that pays the bills and the award-winning stuff for the agency showcase. Most important of all is the incessant pitching process designed to keep the shareholders happy that consistently diverts attention from existing clients. It’s not very Jerry Maguire is it? Client business is as much the stuff of personal career development as it is ROI. Agency people live in the rarified world of the advertising community bubble that feeds off its own hype. This world of palm treed atriums, designer ping pong and foosball tables, plastic sheep pens, shiatsu beanbags and gluten-free tap water is so far removed from the world of consumers that absurd assumptions and condescension are an everyday problem.

Must do better

This has become such a debilitating feature that much of the real consumer insight that constitutes a defining foundation to brand structure is more likely to arrive at the agency fully formulated by clients working with organisations such as Dunnhumby (Tesco) and Strategy One (Dove). From observation of many clients and agencies, it still seems that a lack of investment in research, insight and genuine proposition development, makes huge demands on the comms planning and creative departments to pull the viral rabbit out of very thin air on a regular and unsustainable basis. In the days of mass marketing liner communication of brands, the planners and creatives had much in common with the broadcast audience. In the age of granular interpersonal communication, they do not. It is a lot to ask anyone in the world of fragmented media consumption to be on intimate terms with the voice of the segmented customer. This means that marketing often tells one deluded story while the customer experience is something altogether different.

Content is being commoditised

Content Marketing could be describes as a means of providing useful resources for target audiences through owned channels rather than disruptive communications through rented media. Thinking about the customer journey and providing answers to the question they have at each stage of the process is more important than ever. Every time a brand endeavors to cerate awareness and preference for a product or service, consumers hit the search button and Google serves up a range of competitors for consideration. Perhaps clients with significant brand perception can ride the storm of alternative evaluation, but that outcome is far from certain right up until point of purchase showrooming. It is incumbent upon the product or service to consistently create and curate useful content in order to continue building irresistible trust and engagement all the way to the conversion point and beyond. This relentless provision of relevant, timely and fit for purpose content sits at the heart of content marketing. The problem is that this process requires detailed and constantly developing knowledge of the audience. An audience that, thanks to mobile, doesn’t sit still for very long. An audience that because of search is constantly evaluating their options. An audience that because of mobile combined with search wants nimble and agile content that is in the moment and the context, not necessarily the big idea but a fleeting inflection of it. One key component of content is to ask the audience what they want and then give it to them. The other is to seek their participation in the development of content. There are a growing number of brands that now crowdsource ideas direct from the audience. Who better to know what a products fans want than the fans. The best way for Lady Gaga to build on the collective vibe at a gig is to ask her fans what they would like her to play for an encore and then giving them what they want. They love her even more for bending to their collective will.

What can we learn from Lady Gaga?

Brands that seek audience participation do very well. Off the top of my head, I can think of: Cadbury’s eyebrows, Oyster Card’s iTunes top up, Old Spice’s smell like a man, Doritos’ crash the super bowl, Pringles’ star wars, and the big crowdsourcing daddy of them all, Blendtec’s: “Will it blend?” Why are growing numbers of brands going direct to the crowdsource for creative ideas and production? Is it because agencies are running out of real ideas? Is it because the audience is better at generating relevant ideas? Is it because involving the fanbase collective is a great way of evaluating ideas? The gamification of crowdsourcing can help take the pressure off clients in the decision making process. Let the fans, writers, filmmakers and production companies submit content ideas for free and then seek votes for fans for the winning concept. Doritos recently gave away $1,000,000 and a writing slot on the next Marvel Comics Avengers movie. The winning ad cost $300 to make. The final ad was show on an expensive broadcast channel but the build up was all YouTube, social and viral interaction for months before via a “Vote for my work” pitch process that demonstrated the power of brand facilitated interpersonal narrative and storytelling over big agency budget.


In my opinion, automation is set to become the principle battleground in this predatory struggle between continued agency expansion of remit and client rethinking of who wears the trousers and pays the bills. During the past year, major players in CRM and digital, such as: Oracle, Salesforce, Google, Adobe and, most recently Microsoft have collectively and quietly spent trillions buying up content production, automation and artificial intelligence businesses. The sums involved dwarf the clinically insane amount of money invested in the purchase of WhatsApp. The companies they have acquired are often still in the start-up phase that allows them to see things differently than agencies in the thick of getting client work out the door. They are staffed by thinkers who see the world with that clarity of perspective Sir Martin Sorrel did when he worked as group finance director for Saatchi and Saatchi between 1977 until 1984 – the world was ready for exponential growth through the acquisition of below-the-line agencies followed by the relentless consolidation of media and creative agency, PR networks and eventually digital businesses. The company is so big that sorting out tax liability is probably as important as servicing the needs of clients.

Thanks for the history lesson but let’s cut to the chase

The new breed of automation and computer intelligence companies have that same epiphanic perspective regarding the way forward but what they are seeing is a very different vision of the future: one in which technology can put clients in total granular control of tactical delivery at the press of a button. It is now possible for clients with the knowhow to hitch content to analytics and campaign management tools that put them in complete real time control of relevant, timely, effective and constantly optimising control of all customer communication through all digital channels at the press of a dashboard button. Increasingly they will also bring content production in-house or crowdsource the work. What’s stopping this from happening at the epidemiological level is a lack of professional development and confidence, which won’t be long coming. As an IDM tutor, I see the next generation of digital neo-natives hungry for insight and driven by a desire to have greater control over the often-frustrating client/agency relationship. They are learning digital strategy, they are learning digital tactics, they are learning digital tools, they are learning digital budgeting, they are learning digital analytics, they are learning optimisation and they are learning forecasting at Masters level. Most of all, they are learning how think about reinventing the marketing process for a world which is being shaped by individual consumer behaviours which can be anticipated and serviced at a one-to-one level in real time and is accountable to the nth degree.

Accountability is all that is cracked up to be

A recent Adobe survey regarding confidence levels among professionals working in marketing revealed that over 50% have strong doubts about their skills, effectiveness and ability to measure the impact of their campaigns. This is balanced by just over 40% who have obviously been on an IDM digital course. While this lack of knowledge and confidence must be comforting to agency new business teams and the IDM, it also hints at the battle that the automation and content facilitator fraternity will have to win in the hearts and minds of the digital neo-native generation. It is not enough to sell in systems and head for the hills in the way that the first electronic banking and accounting packagers did. You have to educate and support clients too. You have to educate them to the fact that, for example, their display campaign is not reaching the right audience – of it reaches any audience at all. The recent growth of independent media auditors who put billions of dollars of agency spend under the microscope and ask questions such as, “Are our agency’s deals with media owners the best?”, “Are we investing in the right channels?”, “Where can we save money without losing effectiveness?” “Are the ads we are paying for even being shown at all?” Brands that invest significant sums in paid media channels want reassurance that their investment is done competitively and whether any efficiency improvements are possible. These analysts typically identify improvement opportunities worth between 5 and 15% of client media spend. With some reports suggesting that well over 40% of billed digital display ads never actually being viewed, the role of auditors is growing while industry watchdogs struggle to maintain the self-regulating status quo.

There has to be better way

How much better then, if the client’s team has total control of the campaign and can watch as campaign clickstream data pours into the dashboard and can take corrective action on the fly at any time of the day or night and from any location. No more waiting for a meeting with the agency team. No more briefing and waiting weeks for a response to a small change on the site. Content for all eventuality is preprogrammed into the system, events trigger an automatic response by the most appropriate digital channel based on customer preference and innumerable other factors that are assessed and responded to in less than 100 milliseconds. The customer is instantly gratified and thanks to the fact that all customer touchpoints are tagged and connected to one unifying system across all platforms, so too is the client. Cause and effect are linked in one seamless moment. To know the truth of what actually happens in each moment of the acquisition, conversion and retention process is now a possibility. The only thing getting in the way is us… and the fear of being transparently responsible for our own highly visible actions. Fortunately, I am meeting more and more young digital marketers who cannot wait to earn the knowledge that will give them the control they want over digital strategy and tactics. Once they are in the driving seat, five things will happen:

  • clients will begin to rest control from agencies
  • clients will resource content differently
  • marketing costs will reduce
  • ROMI will increase
  • a new client/agency model will emerge

A health and safety warning about making predictions 

Of course predicting the future is a perilous task at the best of times, but you only have to look at the way digital is going and the automation model that is proving so effective in B2B to see the potential for B2C. Moreover, if you allow me to return to the Star Wars theme I opened with for moment, I will refer you to a guiding quote from Obi Wan Kenobi, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” This is the same feeling I had while giving a recent talk to digital neo-natives at WPP’s GroupM University. They got the idea instantly. Some of their potential future clients are already doing it. Every few hours, somewhere in a galaxy not far, far away, a client turns on a fully automated, actionable and accountable marketing cloud platform and inside their head mutters, “Now, witness the power of this fully operational battle station.” The only difference between their moment of quotable awesomeness and the one in Star Wars is that now it’s the good guys who are operating the battle station.