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. 

Minimum Viable Inbound Marketing Team?

There seems to be a (not so) new kid in town and it’s called inbound marketing. Most of the time it’s defined along the lines of digital content marketing. Furthermore, it is positioned as something that completely changed the profession and role of marketing.  It might. Frankly, I don’t know. I’ve never been active in “traditional marketing”.  What’s even more, I truly hate old school marketing, driven by ads and interruption. 
After about 10 years of practicing so-called inbound and content marketing, I guess I understand what it takes.  And as I notice loads of companies (and even agencies) struggle to organize for inbound, I believe I might help some people out by explaining my ideas on how to organize for such a (not so) new way of marketing.

Most organizations fail in New Marketing because they can’t organize for this new style of marketing 

Over the last couple of years I witnessed loads of attempts to start New Marketing.  Most of them failed. Because they were doing “digital” from an old school Marketing perspective.

Those companies didn’t fail because the Web and New Marketing don’t work. They failed because the Web and New Marketing work only when applied to the right organization. New Media makes a promise to the consumer. If the organization is unable to keep that promise, it fails.

Everybody is a marketer in the right organization.

Marketers spend a lot of time on tactics, social networks, SEO, adwords, etc. At the core however, something with a larger impact is happening. It’s the one where entire organizations change in response to the change in marketing.

When an organization uses New Marketing to reinvent itself, it’s not just the marketing department that needs to change but the entire company.

You can become the right organization. You can align your organization from the bottom up to sync with New Marketing, and you can transform your organization into one that thrives in this transformative world.

This transformation can be done by the Minimum Viable Marketing Team for Inbound Marketing.

The Minimum Viable Marketing Team leads the transformation. 

In our view, a minimum viable marketing team is able to lead the transformation. From within. Bottom-up. If there’s the right leadership on top, that is. If leadership is not convinced of this new way, success will be hard to reach. So you need leadership buy-in. But what you don’t need (on the other hand) is a leader who believes he’s better suited to lead the transformation than the experienced strategist. Buy-in is required, yes. General management should support, facilitate and join transformation. But not lead it, per se. They have plenty of other things to be on.

Some CEOs might of course be able to take lead in a correct way. But most of them should better leave it up to a general marketing expert with experience in digital, content and inbound for years.

How does a Minimum Viable Marketing team look like? And how does it bolster a company-wide ‘culture of content’ or ‘inbound culture’?

Minimum Viable Inbound Marketing Team 

A minimum viable inbound marketing team has 3 responsibilities:

  • Defining the marketing strategy
  • Running marketing operations
  • Encouraging and activating co-workers to think and do inbound

A content marketing team is small and agile, regardless of how big the organization is. You need a small team. But you need a team with the right people – each talented in a specific domain. So what profiles do you need?

  • Marketing Leader: a strategist and generalist that understands digital

Any team needs an experienced leader who’s able to both think strategically and help in execution. He/ she is the person leading your content marketing strategy. All content and processes should flow through. The Marketing Leader is involved in all steps and connects with every team member.

In essence, the marketing leader creates the vision, defines the strategy, sets the goals and makes sure these goals are obtained.

Defining, managing and governing content
Approving designs
Getting web, print and event resources
Budgeting projects
Negotiating contracts
Developing audiences
Developing non-marketing department content creators
Researching and measuring content results

It should be clear that the content marketing team leader needs to be an experienced marketer, preferably in digital marketing. The marketing leader is basically the CEO of the “media business” that rises alongside the “core business” of an organization.

  • Storyteller, Copywriter, Content Creator 

The essence of inbound is that you “pull” people towards you by creating meaningful content. Content that helps potential buyers. It’s by offering content that people build trust in an organization. It’s trust that makes them buy a product or a service.

A content creator writes blogs, ebooks, … However, in today’s world, one cannot deny the importance of visual storytelling. Hence, you might need a designer as well. I suggest to see this multimedia designer as a separate essential profile. After all, it hardly ever occurs that one person is a brilliant writer and designer. Most of the time it’s one of the skills that dominate.

  • Multimedia Designer

The ever-growing importance of visual, snackable content consumption makes clear that design is a key competitive differentiator when everybody produces content. And you don’t need somebody that is specialized in UX or UI. You need somebody with a wide range of design skills: able to create an attractive ebook layout, able to come up with a nice website layout, an infographic, an animated movie, a fair booth, …

  • Front-end Designer/Developer 

One key profile that is often forgot in structuring content marketing teams is a front-end designer / developer. This profile is absolutely necessary if you want to do marketing that transcends “content” into “experiences”.
After all, it’s through digital experiences that content is consumed. By deploying front-end developers in your inbound marketing team, you’ll be able to turn every content piece into an experience.

How to build your Content Marketing Team? 

As stated above, you need a collaboration of 4 profiles: generalist, storytellers, multimedia designers, front-end developers. But how do you build such a team?

  • Hire the best candidate for each position. I mean, it’s a war for talent in an overcrowded content space. Don’t just recruit to recruit. Make sure that the marketing team lead is already there when recruiting the team is happening. Otherwise, things just won’t work.
  • Train your Minimum Viable Marketing Team. Training is without a doubt the most expensive part of content marketing initiatives. These methods and how much training is needed depends on who you hired. So make sure you hire right. What if you had to train your entire team in all things digital because they just left school? Would clients believe they are “experts?” Hire people of high quality who already have the skills and talents that you need. Make sure to check talent during the recruitment process. In today’s world, everybody joining a marketing team should be able to write a blog post without a lot of efforts. What’s even more, everybody (even outside of marketing) should be able to do that. So, if you want to build a culture of content, start with hiring people who value content. Start with people who can create content.
  • Align with the organization. We’ve said it a couple of times throughout this post by now but we’ll rephrase it again: “Marketing is too important to solely leave it up to marketing.” Besides your minimum viable inbound marketing team, you need to engage the entire company. It’s all about finding individuals in other teams that can become a part of your minimum viable team. These people are of tremendous importance. If the minimum viable marketing team is unable to grow beyond its own marketing boundaries, content marketing efforts will proof to be obsolete. After all, it will be only jabberwocky, typical marketing bullshit that is created and communicated.
  • Transform the organization. After you’ve aligned yourself with the organization, it’s time to demonstrate the successes of that alignment. In this manner, alignment becomes transformation. How to continuously foster the transformation of an organization into a content marketing machine?

Transformation of the entire organization led by Marketing? 

Encourage everyone in your organization to write. You might even think to make it a requirement. Maybe you can even link HR incentives to it. (Note: if this incentive is required, blame HR and their recruiting method)

Set a company-wide blog post quota. Think about e.g. a quarterly “offer” quota for those in leadership positions or those looking to move laterally or up in the organization. These will help to get your content marketing program running.  It’s also the perfect way to foster the content culture you want.

In order to build a culture that kicks on content, it’s absolutely necessary for leaders (in the minimum viable marketing team or within the company) to communicate the benefits of being a published author.

Let employees freely contribute to your blog in ways that suit their talents. That could mean that they create a video, an infographic, a SlideShare presentation, present data they’ve researched, or a written blog post…

Make sure people that are interested in “content and storytelling” skills can be trained and coached by the Minimum Viable Marketing Team. That team can organize internal trainings and workshops on e.g. storytelling, writing for the web, social media, …

Over time, the entire company will benefit from the knowledge on how to be better content creators and a successful content marketing program that generates leads and customers.

Keep the content marketing machine running! 

Enabling and encouraging content creation helps to get people started. But is this enough to keep that up in the long term? Surely not. To keep a company-wide enthusiasm about content creation efforts, communicate the impact it has on your business!

Some content will be better than other. Rewarding the content creator will encourage both him (and other co-workers) to continue to create these types of content. Reward those employees by highlighting their content in a public way. By public we mean that the content creator you want to reward signs present in a meeting with other people. This encourages both the rewarded co-worker as well as his colleagues to create mind-blowing content.

Continue to lead by example. Especially from within the minimum viable team, this is absolutely key. It is of crucial importance that the marketing team lead is producing content himself while encouraging others to foster a culture of content.

Hope this helps. In case it didn’t, I have loads of other advise on how to organize for the overcrowded space “content marketing”.

Designing Trust through Marketing Systems.  

I feel most marketing isn’t driven by the right intentions. Marketing these days is hardly involved with the concept of trust. Trust however is at the core of the relationship organizations and brands build with customers. Trust should be at the core of marketing.

People buy a product or use a service from an organization firstly because they genuinely believe the product will help them in one way or another to achieve a goal. This trust makes them a (paying) customer. Without trust, there’s not a chance that people will hand over their money.

Trust is mostly build through experiences with the organization: the things their latest blog posts state, a talk with a representative over the phone, the newsletter announcing the store promotions, an in-store experience, etc. All these touch points help to construct trust.

Over the last decade, we saw a huge rise in the amount of touch points. Just think about all the social media and messaging apps that brands and organizations started to use for many reasons. The number of touchpoints is increasing and will continue to rise in the future.

Wearables and other ‘internet-of-thing’-products will continue to shape a maze of connected touch points. Some of those will connect man with machine. Other solutions will connect machines to machines . But this impacts the human experience massively. And this is exactly what happens in the space of automation.

The human-machine interface disappears. Machines do the interpretation work and allows for the human to be at ease or to focus on other things. One could even state “the less UX, the better the CX” – thereby meaning that when the user experience (human-machine interaction) is downscaled to a minimum because of automation (machine-to-machine), the experience of the human being as such is smoother, easier and hence better.

When looking at the above, one needs to see that marketing should alter its motivation and how it approaches its domain. The motivation is to build trust.

The approach is to build trust through customer experiences in an interconnected system of touch points. This equally means that marketing is about system thinking, interaction/persuasion/service design, behavioural design and business model innovation.

Touch points are specifically designed to have a function within a larger system. It requires a holistic and strategic view upon the customer journey and touch point interactions. Marketing is about people’s behavior. Mostly you want them to buy something. But today people only buy from trusted sources. How to become a trusted brand or organization?

Marketing is customer experience and customer experience builds trust

Marketing’s motivation is to build trust with people so to spark a relationship that might end up in a recurring and paying loyal customer.

Trust isn’t built overnight. The number one marketing tool has always been advertising. The problem with advertising is that ads aren’t trusted by default these days. Ad-blocking is the new normal. But if I look at the postal boxes in my street, asking not to get any ads has always been the default. (pas de pub sticker). The same counts for so-called “marketing campaigns”. Marketing shouldn’t be about campaigning. Marketing should be about behavioural design and especially for a system of interactions that build trust.

Now, you might think that going inbound and content marketing is the right way to generate trust. That’s OK but there are plenty of pitfalls to this approach tough. Be aware that you truly understand and take that new approach, not an old one on new digital channels.

Regardless of the fact that a product or service is aimed at a consumer or a business (B2B, B2C), the goal is to design a system that resonates and generates trust with humans.

Designing a marketing system for trust is the new marketing plan. The new marketing plan designs and engineers a behavioural system of interaction for persuasion to trust the brand or organization.

Be aware that the layer on top of the marketing system is the core value / core message / core story of the organization or brand. “Stick to the brand promise. “ But make sure that brand promise is purpose-driven. Having a purpose, standing for something is very important to build trust.

Speaks for itself that consequently the goal of the holistic marketing system is to grow the business by growing new customers, keeping happy and loyal customers.

The first step in this “marketing plan 2.0” is to visualize all these (and future) touch points, their role and interactions. Next up of course is to map those with customer behaviour. Those are analyzed and reveal very interesting insights in both customers and internal processes. Furthermore, it allows to set new goals and KPI’s for each touch point. Those goals need to be realized through marketing and communication actions.

Conceiving those marketing and communication actions is a cool and creative exercise of how we can improve Trust through experiences. And that’s of course where the art and science of service design jumps in. Service design is all about the question “how can we serve our customer?” …

There’s no better question to ask when it comes down to building trust. You build trust when you help people out, when you are supportive.

For every touch point matters: the more useful for a (potential) customer, the higher the appreciation, the higher the trust, the higher the chance this human believes it worthy to give you money in exchange for your product or service.

Designing Customer Trust – mind the inside as well.

It’s not possible or very hard to build trust in the outside world (customer) if there’s no trust internally (employee engagement). After all, it is through the actions of the employees that you build trust externally.

Your brand or organization is the sum of customer’s complete experiences with the organization across all touch points. Your brand isn’t your company. It isn’t your marketing message. It isn’t even your product. It is an experience — a holistic experience a customer has with your product, your content and your employees. It is the reason to choose you over your competitor.

Some businesses have recognized this seismic shift and managing consumer experiences became not only a challenge, but a priority. But as they started to implement strategies, solutions and tools across the organization, one critical gap became widely clear.

No matter how much you try to serve your customers, if the organization is internally siloed in mentality, processes and technology, no amount of delight will ever deliver a truly holistic experience that builds customer trust.

Employee experience is the internal precondition for a solid external customer experience. Stated differently: you need engaged employees who are proud and trust in the organization that they work for before you can successfully provide customer experiences.

Building trust is about building relationship capital through smart experience management. And the only way to achieve that is for all parts of the organization to work together, to become a connected company.

How does one design engaged employees that can help building a trusted organization through internal marketing systems? In other words, what is a great environment for the next-gen employees?

A company needs to have a purpose. It needs to stand for something. Something good. That’s the role of leadership. Leaders should be able to envision the company’s purpose and communicate that through good storytelling. How else are you going to motivate the people who are actually doing the work?

When it comes down to leadership, employees trusting the leaders is absolutely key. If a leader behaves in the internal marketing system like a bastard, trust is going down. And talented people might look to work elsewhere.

Actually these things heavily define the overall company culture. In case there’s no leader able to tell a vision and a roadmap, people are not going to get the purpose. They will just show up every day, do their tasks without any further. No passion, no drive. And then the organization or brand wonders why it is so hard to keep the sales funnel fueled or whines when the competitor does something cool, or why they don’t innovate…

Talking about innovation! You often here that companies need to “act like a startup” in order to innovate? I agree, but what does it mean – to act like a startup? If you look at some startup theories, it’s really important to start from and with the people in order to form a team. Select those people correctly, make sure they understand what they are supposed to do and why, have a clear communication channel (select a technology for collaboration) and allow them to grow through Learning & Development budgets and “pivot” their business together. When it comes down to “pivoting”, it means you need to be able to communicate visions and roadmaps and willing to discuss those with others.

Visions and roadmaps are the marketing systems you need to build trust. External customer trust. Internal employer trust.

Solving Business Problems with System Thinking.

Not rarely solving a business problem comes down to being able to reframe the situation and context. Most of the time de- and reconstructing the Marketing System as a framework to build Trust shows possible solutions to a problem.

This happens through workshops, research, training and doing.

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