Back to the Future in 2015: Five Predictions for Advertising Agencies

The perception that marketing professionals can be divided into so-called traditionalists and cool digital kids has taken root. To remain relevant, we lunge at the latest data mining technique or augmented reality app without thinking of strategic imperatives.
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2015, it must be hoped, will be a year in which the communications industry heads back to the future. The digital universe has become hydra-headed, shape shifting. Marketers are drowning in a sea of bits and bytes. Digital crusaders advocate algorithmic salvation and Big Data deliverance.

The perception that marketing professionals can be divided into so-called traditionalists and cool digital kids has taken root. To remain relevant, we lunge at the latest data mining technique or augmented reality app without thinking of strategic imperatives.

The result -- message inconsistency, consumer confusion, and cultural conflicts within the communications industry -- has not been pretty.

In 2015, a professional intifada will end. The primacy of ideas -- both strategic and executional -- will become self-evident. We will realize that timeless principles of brand building must be turbo-charged, but not replaced, by technology. As this happens, a few trends emerge:

Consistency is Golden. Marketers will demand "top-down" and "bottom-up" alignment, rooted in a brand idea that defines a long-term relationship between consumers and brand. This relationship, inherently interactive and bilateral, underpins subsequent consumer engagement that needs to be both authentic and constructed. Marketers must forge a paradigm that allows freedom within a framework, pulling off the trick of simultaneously permitting consumers to participate with brands while empowering marketers to manage the message and dialog.

Nike lives and breathes the "Just do it" spirit across all media. The spirit is not simply a call to participate in sports. It is a rallying cry to push against convention and defined oneself independent of society. Through Nike, through a relationship with a brand that has forged a meaningful role in life, a paraplegic can ignore preconceptions and compete in a long-distance marathon. Nike+ is a not simply a wearable technology. It is a high-tech manifestation of Nike's soul. A fusion of innovation and conceptual precision, "Just do it" is always on.

A New Teamwork Imperative.
Agency leaders realize it's time for non-traditional partnerships in so-called traditional shops. The old-fashioned copywriter and art director duo is approaching its sell-by date. But let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. Ideation is still fundamental to everything we do. One suggestion from R/GA's Chief Creative Officer Nick Law: agencies should be populated with pairs of "conceptual distillers" and "systemic designers." The former ensures thematic focus. The letter opens up a full range of engagement possibilities.

New forms of collaboration within creative departments will not be easy to realize. The technical engineering skills required to build new engagement platforms is linear, analytic, and "left brain." On the other hand, the type of creativity required for developing campaigns, "framing the debate" within online communities, and conceiving content is lateral, conceptual and "right brain." But we must step out of our comfort zones.

Acquisitions: Less Pell-Mell.
We know digital is a fat word. CEOs will less frequently attempt to diversify by acquiring digital companies regardless of specialization. Advertising agencies' attempts to be customer relationship management (CRM) specialists, user experience optimizers and technology platform engineers have been misguided. We need to focus on acquiring assets that allow two-dimensional communications to blossom into multi-dimensional brand experiences. In the same know-thyself spirit, hard-core data and technology firms should avoid marriages with creative boutiques.

Digital Pure Plays: Global, not Local.
As client digital demands proliferate, only the largest agencies offer one-stop shopping. But mid-sized agencies are becoming adept at sourcing relevant expertise wherever it exists. Lower transaction costs facilitate the creation of multinational networks in which best-in-class services - from social network "listening" to real-time media buying to e-commerce site management -- are deployed seamlessly across geographies. To facilitate synergy across centers of excellence, clear governance principles - that is, rules of the road to avoid revenue turf wars - will be crucial.

New Revenue Models: No Critical Mass. The margins of "traditional" advertising agencies face continued downward pressure The reasons for the squeeze are familiar: on-going production centralization as well as competition from Google and other digital platforms that offer micro-targeting, real-time buying and, in some markets, advertising production as an incentive.

Forward-thinking companies must "future proof" themselves. We will experiment with remuneration schemes including intellectual property (IP) ownership for products inspired by creative ideas. However, the "bi-modal" revenue structure of our industry - between companies that craft ideas and companies that optimize transactional efficiencies - will not change. Creative agencies are not inventors. Instead, we must harness technology to make our ideas more powerful.

Carefully crafted strategies and executions--adherence to the ABCs of brand building--will remain our lighthouse. As brand pioneers, we must explore the shoals of a new digital landscape. Timeless will be new.

This article originally appeared in "Digital Market Asia" and covers themes in my recently-published book, "Twitter is Not a Strategy: Rediscovering the Art of Brand Marketing"

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