Why I’m betting my money on small creative agencies to thrive in this digital age?


I recently outsourced my brain to a creative agency as the other parts of my body were busy rebuilding a house. It was an ad-hoc request to create a pitch for a well-known banking brand. Whether I could come up with a creative communications campaign based on a humdrum client briefing. Turned out I could. Turned out this is what a creative director does: A strategic and creative answer to a dull briefing. If you want to see the pitch slide deck, drop me a line.

This whole project got me thinking tough. On the role and type of agencies we have today. And which ones we will have tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow. Contrary to current popular believe, I’m going all-in for the creative agencies. I’m pleased to detail my reasoning further below.

In 2017: Digital is basic by now.

I’m amazed that digital marketing is still a thing. It’s 2017. Digital is like electricity, it’s just basic. Everybody does it. Maybe it’s time to drop the term digital as such.

Back in 2006 when I started, digital (online) marketing was a true differentiator. Today, it’s not. It even might be the hardest way to catch the consumer’s increasingly selective (digital) attention.

Today, there is also the growing understanding that overall customer experience is the key differentiator that can make or break brand success. Back-to-basics, isn’t it?

Sure marketers need to drive tangible, data-driven results – something consultancy firms are traditionally good at. However agencies and/or in-house marketing teams have (or should have) those skills as well today.

But, the big, creative ideas are more necessary than ever for brands in search of the ultimate experience. Even, or should I say especially, in a digital space and age.

The big, creative ideas, concepts and stories are the key asset of a creative (ad) agency. And those things aren’t time-specific. Stories and creativity are for eternity.

In eternity: creativity & stories are channel-agnostic.

The core relevant ideas/concepts/creativity are just as relevant for any channel. That’s basically the adagio we’ve known for ages – integrated communications. Back-to-basics. Again.

We can finally make that happen. Over numerous channels. A unified, seamless experience. Some channels are fully traceable today, others will be soon. And that’s exactly where data comes in. But be aware, there isn’t gonna be a lot of (big) data when there’s no big story that resonates and draws the attention of many.

Data is important and it is at client’s side.

No single creative ad ever came out of the blue. It was always driven by insights. By understanding. By empathy with the “target audience” the message was meant for.

In today’s digital age, there’s of course the digital data trace of human behavior that lead to great insights and understanding. It’s a completely new game due to data science. But then again, doing something relevant based on these insights requires creativity.

What’s even more, the data is owned by the agency’s client. One can imagine that privacy may be of importance so it seems natural that agencies will also need to service at client’s side. Let’s say like martech companies do today. Marketing tech companies help marketers manage data, loyalty and CRM programs.

Next to this data thing, there’s another trend that “design” or “creativity” evolve into key hires at the client side. And we agree, those things really give a competitive advantage. But I believe it will not replace the creative agency – rather act as a bridge.

Where data meets creativity, innovation spurs.

We talked above about data and creativity. I firmly believe this is exactly where innovation happens. At the intersection of data and innovation.

And oh yes, innovation is the thing of a creative agency. No longer is advertising necessarily the best manifestation of creativity. Marketers are now looking towards innovation and effectiveness in terms of brand-experience. For the agencies, this is gold.

Agencies have a perfect position to foster innovation based on dull client requests. Due to creativity within a specific context (data). So agencies should not only conceive a new label on a package, they should conceive an innovative package for instance.

The great rebundling of “expertises” to offer full-fledged customer experiences.

With the above trends in mind, how does a successful marketing communication service provider of the future look like?

A one-stop shop that provides companies with all the support they need to deliver relevant, exciting experiences across all consumer touch points.

Companies need a streamlined, end-to-end solution to push creative thinking to the forefront. It doesn’t make sense to get business strategy advice from one firm and creative input from another—especially if the creative agency doesn’t understand how the company’s business works or how industry trends are impacting its bottom line.

Just as consulting improves the quality of creative work, consulting work benefits from the ingenuity provided by creatives. There’s going to be a blurred line between the folks who create amazing original content and big ideas and the more nerdy specialists that do all that personalization “data” and “tech”. People who understand data and omni-channel ultimately become the most responsible in this respect. 

As clients demand newly bundled support across commerce, digital content and media distribution, agencies transform to meet the challenge, investing in consulting and tech. At the same time non-agency players are getting their way into the marketing services industry. The threat of new competition lures behind the corner too: media owners/publishers & wide range of ‘consultancies’. 

I imagine creative agencies will get smaller. The big idea doesn’t benefit from size. It flourishes in small cultures. What doesn’t get much smaller, beyond the roles that can be automated in time, is the data and analytics business that drives personalization

That’s exactly why I’m betting on small creative agencies to remain the marketing service provider of the future. 

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