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. 

Is “push to add drama” truly the best ad? Yes, for the agency.

Do you remember how TNT Benelux launched?
Odds are high you don’t even know what I’m talking about… (based on small-scale research, see below).

But if I’d ask you whether you recall a really cool video starring a big, red button in the middle of a town square – flanked with a sign that said “push to add drama”, chances are high you know what I’m talking about…
(based on small-scale research, see below).

The Best Ad in the World

Do I love the ad? Hell yeah!
Do I believe this is the best ad in the world? Hell no!

Why it isn’t the best advert in the world

To determine whether a specific ad is good or not, one has to look at the goals that were set before the advert was made. I have to be honest here, I don’t know the advertiser’s goals. But I believe they can be one or more of the following:

  • Awareness of the Brand TNT – it was a product launch after all
  • Drive ratings for the TV Channel – which impacts the bottom line of TNT
  • Brand building: make TNT’s identity
  • Other goals?

So in the last couple of weeks I ran an experiment to know whether this great concept also proved to be the best ad ever made (as I read somewhere). And once again, I need to be honest. The hypothesis I was looking to back up through research was:

“Push to add drama is the best ad for the agency that made it.”

Experiment Design

The experiment design consisted of two groups:

  • People within the Marketing, Communication, Ad industry
  • People outside of that industry

Next to that, the experiment asked whether they knew the brand for whom this video was made (in 2 distinctive manners) and whether they have been watching TNT Benelux so far. Hence the questions after viewing the movie:

  • For which brand is this video made?
  • For which newly launched TV station this video was aired? Tip: logistics, explosives.
  • Have you watched TNT Benelux?

Experiment Results

Experiment results

Experiment results

Experiment conclusion?

In general people don’t recall the brand promoted through the viral video. Even when I provided extra tips to them: “explosives (=TNT)” & “logistics (=TNT)”. Consequently it shouldn’t surprise that only 1 out of 35 respondents watched the channel. Within my respondents nobody went to see the website of TNT Benelux.

Well done Agency!

The most striking thing however is that the “Marketing, Communication, Advertising Group” of respondents basically all knew which agency made this ad / viral movie. And today, they’re all dreaming about a collaboration with that agency. It was the best ad in the world. For the agency that is.

What’s your view on viral advertising by the way?

Samson meets F.C. De Kampioenen. Storytelling for Flemish brains?

I recently came across the below YouTube video. It mixes two of the most popular Flemish TV shows ever – F.C. De Kampioenen and Samson & Gert – into a video clip for the latter show. It got me thinking.

Could it be that there’s something like a narrative format that pleases Flemish brains? What constitutes those success factors? And did Bart De Wever – a nationalist populist politician – crack that same code to win elections?

So to answer the questions from the introduction, I strongly recommend to have a look at the above video after which we present some background on Belgium and the TV shows in particular.

Background: Belgium & Broadcasters

Belgium at a glance.

Belgium at a glance.

Belgium. One of the planet’s most difficult, absurd and surreal countries. Yes, we excel in chocolate, beers and waffles. And that’s a good thing. But apart from that we organized our country into distinct regions like a French-speaking part called Wallonia, a Dutch-speaking part known as Flanders and a mixed region known as Brussels.

There’s something remarkable about Flanders and its most popular TV shows.

Successful TV Shows on Public Broadcasting TV

The Belgian broadcasting landscape is organized along the same lines of the country. That is to say, TV is organized and managed by the regional governments. In case of Flanders, the Flemish government takes care of the media landscape. That landscape is a mixture of public broadcasters and commercial broadcasters. It’s important to realize that the public broadcasting service is quite popular up until recent changes in the media landscape.

What’s striking however is that this public broadcaster often airs the same shows. This allows them to recycle content without investing in the production of new shows. Equally important is to point out the fact that the ratings for these shows remain impressively high.

Over the last 20 years there have been two remarkable TV Shows. Those were so brilliant that they were aired year after year.

Flemish TV Shows as a cultural meme?

During my entire lifetime there seem to be two extremely successful TV-shows, one for ‘adults’ and one for ‘kids’. I’m respectively talking about ‘F.C. De Kampioenen’ and ‘Samson & Gert’. Both have been aired and recycled year after year that an entire generation of Flemish people actually knows these stories as if they were a cultural meme. Hey, I believe today they actually are one.

But why exactly are these shows that popular? I believe one needs to find the answer by looking at both shows. For me, it’s quite clear that both shows draw upon the same principle. The way the narrative is structured and told is the same. The only thing that differs between both shows is in fact that the one is for adults and the other one is for kids. In practice, it comes down to a family wide social TV watching experience.

The Flemish brain?

Why do these stories appeal the Flemish people that much? And why don’t these stories appeal to the Dutch-speaking neighbouring country ‘The Netherlands’? Yes, we tried to export both shows. The one for kids worked fine but wasn’t as big in the Netherlands as it was in Flanders. The TV show for adults was a complete disaster: Dutch people did not like it at all. Was it our humor? Or is there something more at stake here?

I believe that the TV shows are popular just because of the way the story is told. The stories are wired for a Flemish brain. The only thing I need to find is a method to analyze stories so to check whether this hypothesis is valid anyway.

How to analyze TV Shows as a story?

In order to find the “success narrative elements for Flemish brains” I’d like to analyze loads of the shows of both series and consequently compare both series to one another. The final goal is to demonstrate that both shows act on the same storytelling principles. Principles that are particularly appealing to Flemish people.

Until today however, I’m having some issues developing the right analytical frame to execute a proper content analysis. I would truly appreciate your help. Do you know any studies that have analyzed the narrative as such?

Content Analysis Framework to discover the narrative

In order to demonstrate that both shows rely on the same narrative principles, I’m looking to develop a framework for content analysis so to test my gut feeling. The below information from Dr. Chris Griffin seems a good starting point.

narrative analysis

narrative analysis

Has Bart De Wever cracked the code?

We recently held local elections, as my earlier article demonstrates. And regardless of the fact that they were on regional level, Bart De Wever was able to take it to higher levels. He had to anyway, otherwise his “story” wouldn’t have made any sense.

Bart De Wever, N-VA

Bart De Wever, N-VA

But now that we touch upon the story-aspect. Is the political success of Bart De Wever related to his storytelling tactics? Does he deploy the same techniques that F.C. De Kampioenen and Samson & Gert stories do? I believe he might have. What he certainly does is simplifying reality. This has been proven in a Ph.D. “N-VA. Analysis of an ideology.” that states “the party reduces democracy to a temporary dictatorship – meaning: the ones who won the elections are the only ones that can actually reign. In their story they are the only valid voice of Flanders. And this story is often repeated in media outlets: N-VA and especially Bart De Wever are the personification of the moral community of the “Flemish people”.

What else could explain “Flanders Only” popularity?

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