4 Branding issues for Ad / Digital, Creative, PR agencies


Photo by Marcus Castro on Unsplash

The 4 Branding issues for Ad / Digital, Creative, PR agencies… Why do I write this piece? Because I see their blurred role in the on-going Transformation that markets undergo. What do I care? I’ve worked in this industry at Peak Performance levels, nurturing talent, navigating impactful ideas, serving demanding customers and currently I sense it needs to re-ignite once more. Actually, minimize the risk of not having a critical role.

4 Branding issues for Ad / Digital, Creative, PR agencies

The 4 Branding issues that AD, Creative, PR agencies face is my personal testament to the profession I’ve loved and delivered. You know, I’ve started, like many others, working in Marketing Communications, with the broad inspiring drive for crafting “Ideas”.

Going through many roles, I’ve discovered, hands-on, that what was (and will continue to be) making a difference was Strategy lead, Business acumen, Brand navigation with an advisory stance, and the craft of Creativity. Of course, the media landscape and technical skills were always evolving, but it was always about these agencies’ (Brand) traits.

My most inspiring agency-leader, Yiorgos Zannias, taught me that you can acquire business acumen working for many brands, but the hard part is to conceptually bridge Client KPI’s with Creativity to drive Change and serve the Consumer (not the Customer’s biases). Every day, in every pitch. This is exactly the gap that agencies are faced with, in the current context.

A recent audit is alarming

In the last two months Borrow my Brain touched-base with 7 different Ad & Digital agencies and PR firms, to support them in Brand & Briefing Content training, as well as acting as their outsource for Content creation. They seem to be in a tough spot.

Except one of them (a new agency, with young teams, and youthful attitude), who brings a very strategic posture, all others admitted that they are passively ‘bombarded’ with ‘quick-and-dirty’ briefs for implementation and production. They just try to safeguard the relationship and they only fight to save the day, by proposing a better channel-plan, than that of the Client. No strategy depth, mostly routine creative work, no significant difference from their (and their Client Brand’s) competition in external communications.

They’ve told me (and I quote) “the thinking part is a luxury“, “with such reduced fees, we can’t invest in strategic approach and planning“, “we have a major gap in between seniors and juniors“, “…digital deliverables cost up to three-times due to back-and-forths“, and “…customer is totally illiterate on digital PR strategies and presence, making it harder for us“.

No1 challenge: losing the Strategy lead

The agencies were always the lead Communication strategist, navigating their Client’s Brand. They were famous for saying ‘No’ to their Client using real strategic insights and purchase cycles’ know-how. Is this happening today?

Nowadays, the Advertiser / Client interacts with many agencies, roles, partners creating a chaotic effect for the Brand at hand, or for worse works with agencies that try to offer all kinds of services under one roof (Advertising & Creative, PR, Digital, Paid/Native/Sponsorship, Editorial content, and even a bit of website development etc).

In this cluttered and difficult channel/function orchestration, the Agency that stands out is the one with really senior Strategic skills, the ability to Navigate Brands and offer engaging Creativity that is measured. Act as a real advisor for Impact. It goes without saying that the agency that stands-out performs exceptional Communication planning, wide and deep on behalf of the Client.

Whenever an agency is on ‘survival-mode’, lowering fees and going into the fast-implementation trap, or whenever tries to offer a bit of everything (without investing in real competence inside), then it becomes a commodity. The client isn’t infatuated or feels that “the agency can’t deliver“.

Today the Advertiser / Client needs, expects (and will value greatly) actionable and measurable responses to the Brand’s Sales Growth, Wanted Position, and Engagement. If the agencies lose the Strategy lead, will the ‘final solution’ be offered by Deloitte, PwC, KPMG, IBM, Accenture?

No2 challenge: revenue from specialization

I’ve worked in the days where the agency was making +15% profit margin before taxes, but these days won’t come back, ever! For the next 20 years, the Advertiser / Client must transform brand and operations, reduce cost-base, and get the maximum ROI from any advice, activation, or single agency proposal. If this is the path forward, the revenue will decrease significantly and agencies must find their added-value differentiator. How can agencies tackle this new situation?

The Advertiser / Client by reducing the fees or spreading the communication business to many agencies is impacting both its Brand outcomes, its own in-house talent, and agency’s talent acquisition. You see hundreds of interns and newbies around, while the Briefs’ strategic issues are increasing like hell since the Brands aren’t in shape, or new Brands appear and fight for awareness.

Here are the crossroads for agency leaders: a) the first strategic route is survival-mode (reducing fees, not hiring the best), b) the second route is to redefine the agency brand, find the new cost-revenue equilibrium, revisit what do you stand for, be exclusive and a real specialist, keep a well-balanced unique team.

Content-only specialist? PR advisor only? Digital UX? Digital strategist? Specialize… My humble view: it’s better to make less, but be seen as unique in what you do, than trying to serve Clients with a hundred options menu.

More and more agencies are starting to come around to a more creative way of thinking, robust strategic Brand navigation. They also (on the contrary of the past agency networks) have solid, memorable and creative names.

They currently populate the industry: 72 And Sunny, Strawberry Frog, Taxi, Big Spaceship, The Bank, Pocket Hercules, David & Goliath, Mother, Moosylvania, Creature

(source: Advertising Agency, The Balance)

Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the complex symbol which is the Brand image.

David Ogilvy


No3 challenge: contemporary expertise

Every senior agency team claims to own business expertise and acumen. Sure, you can get it by surveying and auditing, mining into Insights, reading web/SEO/data analytics, and sketching customer journeys, off-and-online. But if you exclude the global agency networks that are doing this strategic in-depth analysis for their tier-1 global brands, who else is investing time in this crucial planning phase? Your agency?

Who is training the agency staff? How? Who’s developing their competence for the new realities of Communication audiences, channels, and behaviours? Can an agency’s Account Manager serve well the Client without talking and planning for Most Wanted Actions, for Own media content, for measurable funnels and Customer journeys off-and-online?

Even if you develop an e-shop, how can you perform without sales-funnel strategizing and product portfolio suggestions to the Client? The need for omnichannel readiness can’t be met easily by service providers. The communications functional roles merge by default. The Brand touchpoints and Communication channels have increased a lot, while the target-audiences diverge.

So, claiming senior business expertise means nothing, if the agency teams don’t own competence of digital channels’ metrics, analytics’ synthesis, UX/UI issues online, PR for consumer journeys. If they aren’t transformed with such new skills and competence, how can they navigate the Advertiser/Client? If the business expertise isn’t bridged with a deep understanding “how the new era works” …the Brands are at risk.

No4 challenge: Brand Navigation

Preparing an Insight Mining & Briefing workshop for a growth-minded Agency, I got at hand two Client briefs to turn them into exercises. The one from a big local market Brand, and the second from a legacy multinational name. Shocking!

Both briefs at the target-audience section were proposing “Adults, 18-35 yrs“. It was like going back in the future! No user profiles. No data cross-relating. Broadly, target them all …or “the agency will fix this, it’s their job“! No, my dear Advertiser/Client, it is your job to give-in an insightful Brief describing your target-audience in a way that makes sense in your business and in real-life… Otherwise, external communication will not live through.

I was lucky to Work on Saatchi & Saatchi Ideas Brief and being part of the innovative team that created the Insight Mining Tool in Lowe Worldwide. Lucky for working with DDB, Edelman, Google partners, and Seventy when drafting the global Ericsson One Campaign. You can’t capture the intensity, time, and effort we were putting in the planning phase. How detailed we were at the target-audience section.

Agencies seem to have abandoned the planning, a service phase that costs a lot of time and resources. Most of the times, it is being done in synoptic format by the agency leaders or the Creative/development team, leaving outside of the process the junior-middle agency staff. Who’s going to bring back the fun in the “Ideas business”? Who’s securing the inquisitive Culture of connecting the dots before the Customer?

Even if I’m right by 50% in what do I argue, then you can imagine that Creativity is a random (by chance) achievement, or that the final communication output is “Client-liked-it“. Now, that’s a KPI… Give it a thought, why the 76% of global Marketers see Content as their No1 challenge.

Haven’t we learned from David Ogilvy?

Ogilvy once said “The business community wants remarkable advertising but turns a cold shoulder to the kind of people who can produce it. That is why most advertisements are so infernally dull…. our business needs massive transfusions of talent. And talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters, and rebels.

If I was to return to M&C duties now, I would ask the agency boss to use me as their Human resources specialist. Find the right talent, match personalities with industries and Client, train them 24/7, and raise them to be the best advisor they can be, no matter the channel or speciality.

This is why the communications industry is losing grounds by the PWC, Accenture, IBM and others. It’s called disinvestment in Talent… Don’t get fooled, no matter if you work for a more traditional, a PR, or a digital Brief …the Brands aren’t getting the best of communication talent they should have.

Go and check 4A’s most recent studies

The 4A’s share insights from industry leaders. The biggest challenge the global ad industry (incl. digital) is facing right now is becoming more and more competitive and speciality shops are popping up claiming an expertise in music, sports and entertainment or in web/SEO, social video and AI solutions. You see why your agency should stand-out? It is so easy to get lost in the noise, so find a hole and fill it. Don’t continue the routine of the past.

Go and check Advertising Age’s Agency report 2017

The consolidated networks’ revenue position report shows Accenture in No1 position and then Young & Rubicam, PWC digital, McCann Worldgroup, IBM IX, BBDO Worldwide, Deloitte Digital, Publicis, Dentsu, and DDB Comms Group.

You get the picture. There are agencies that either invest in the digital transformation wave, or those (legacy brands) keeping a robust service with planning & creative mindset and culture practice in all channels and type of activations.

Download the Borromybrain e-Book on Communications ‘hot-issues’

If you want to stay in business, build your next Gen of Leaders

  • Humble, responsive, and listening professionals (not the ‘ego’ type).
  • Creative and insightful thinkers who can weave a common thread of strategy across all of the channels.
  • Experts who can co-create, orchestrate, and propose shared expertise (with other agencies) to the Client.
  • Confident and optimists that find and coordinate solutions and projects/campaigns, no matter the challenge at hand
  • A diverse but complementary workforce that loves the Ideas work, because they believe that the power of Communications inspires.
  • Project (certified) Managers
  • Know-how on all-is-digital (not social media-only)

Tough? Yes! But it’s the only route to stay relevant and responsive to the Industries & Digital transformation that (any) Advertiser/Client will undergo. Can’t recruit? If so, then develop from within such Talent, your next generation of agency leaders.

End-note, most important

The Advertiser/Client is facing on-going disruptions in target-audiences, customer journeys, online behaviour, and media channels. They will adapt by force, by market forces. It doesn’t stop here. Agency teams should really help and support. Must add value and be on guard.

Perhaps a bit idealistic, but when I look around the world today – a time of growing polarization, and conflicts – I believe that Communication agencies (no matter the function/channel) can help bridge divides, mend fences and convey ideas that bring people together. We need that now more than ever.

My dear agency CEO, GM, Planner, Account, Creative Director, Content, Community Manager, Media Relations, Media Planner, developer, UX expert, SEO & Web you have a greater market purpose. Don’t simply improve your technical competence, without changing your Service ways of working… all, around the same roundtable.

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