Transforming the creative agency to help it adapt to the challenges brought by (digital) technology and tailor it for the future.

Technology. There’s good news and bad news. Good news is that it’s allowing us to embrace innovation and come up with “new-improved” ways of reaching the consumer. Bad news is that, quite often today’s creative agencies are behind the pace in adapting to the light-speed changes that are happening around us and having to drag themselves just to stay in the race.

Adapting is not new to ad agencies. They are the ones that invented “new and improved” and put it on boxes of detergent, on decongestants and electronics. Changing agency structure, setting up new divisions, re looking at HR strategies and revamping business strategies have always been part and parcel of being an ad agency. But when it comes to technology and “Adopting” beyond “Adapting” agencies are having to seriously introspect and re-evaluate everything.

The problem with technology is that it truly follows the “change is a constant” mantra. And the speed at which technology is changing is just way too quick at times for a business that some say is the second oldest in mankind’s history. When word of mouth became word of mouse, and clicks and swipes blurred lines of engagement, agencies had to refocus, remodel and re-contextualize.

The creative agency today is really a content agency. The business is a hybrid of Campaign and Always On. Most creative agencies are used to the Campaign mode – they’re familiar with brand building: where the modus operandi is pre-planned, based on research and insight, revolving around a singular idea (remember USP?), with high production values and one which reached the consumer via a media plan. Container driven, and focused on a brief. Boxed in. Today, they’re having to focus on Experience building via an Always On mode. Where most often it is response and interactive, based on listening, not via ads but via content windows, not via one way but via dialog, with lightweight distribution being key and when the ability to publish and distribute as and when is key. See the shift?

Creative agencies are having to quickly adapt to this shift. The move away from one-way advertising to a world of engagement where the brand and consumer is engaged in a dialog. The move away from a simple four step model of Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action to social media driven always-on, multiple stages of brand and consumer locked together beyond the A-I-D-A model into shared interest, shared action, loyalty, advocacy and a whole lot more. All with content at core. Every bit of brand-consumer interaction is a bit of content, and it’s no wonder that creative agencies today are re-visioning themselves towards the creation and delivery of content.

This calls for a whole new look at how the business operates. Integrated offerings are becoming key in the new world, and the survival of agencies and the product it delivers needs to be beyond just evolutionary changing, it requires a revolutionary, disruptive model. Today, creative folks who are planning consumer engagement strategies and implementation, need to know not just what, but how, where, why, when and who. So, hiring creative talent today needs to be a deep dive into what that talent is aware of – the possibilities that technology brings, the avenues that open up, the behaviors that are changing every day. Agencies today are not just hiring creative, they are looking for a new breed – creative technologists. Folks who can harness the power and prowess of technological advances towards creating endearing, entertaining experiences.

Let’s look at HR strategies a bit more then. Not just in recruiting but even in the way agencies are structured and people nurtured and grown, how the best ‘aware’ talent is retained and new people are recruited on a continuum, talent that is niche specialized in new emerging platforms. Copywriters need to understand SEO. Art directors need to have a handle on UX. Production staff need to understand file formats and sizes like never before. And, in structure they need to be liquid, in a free flow. There’s a new call for creative agencies to hire the best ‘digital pure plays’ (specialists in specific genres – the Vine generators, the instagram creators, the tweet warriors). Some agencies are diving into the deep end of this pool. Others are going for the ‘hybrid-as-minimum’ requirement in their hiring policies.

Some agencies are going overboard – forgetting that technology is not a solution in itself. Whatever they do, structure wise, talent wise, business model wise, there needs to be recognition that technology is after all merely an enabler, a connector. Creative agencies don’t need to overnight become technology companies, but each and every one needs to understand it, and be comfortable at procuring and using technology and platforms. Creativity in this digital age is about recognizing the behavior of our target audiences. What surrounds them, their interests, their passions. Beyond that, technology should remain transparent and not obvious.

At the core the raison d’etre for a creative agency is connecting the brand to the consumer. One cannot lose that as a focal point. Everything else is a means to that end. An agency’s core is, and should be adding value to the client’s business, solving the client’s problem. That fundamental remains the same. And today, what’s an addendum to that is that one can achieve a lot of that core requirement with flexibility and agility. Specially when it comes to using technology. That’s how you futureproof your creative agency.

Future proofing structure. Today, one has to be open to diversity and dexterity in structure. This is a call for innovation – at the center of how there needs to be a right mix of people, set up and way of working, way of developing and delivering the end product. This means having different people with different skillsets all in the right places, and having a liberating, open structure and business model so they can thrive, be inventive and stay on the ball. This means creating the right conditions so that this new generation of talent can thrive and excel. Being malleable and ductile in structure is the way of the future. And being able to create a genuine setup that converts data, often big data, into clever insight. This is certainly a new structure, a new specialization, and one has to be a 100% comfortable with this.

Future proofing business models. This needs a long hard look at billing, revenue, remuneration and contracts. If digital driven engagement today is asking for a Cost per Acquisition or Cost per Lead model, are agencies stuck with retainers? Should creative agencies bill on successful engagement patterns? On volume and depth of dialog vs number of print ads rolled out? Some relationships are moving from retainer models to project based billings. Others are moving from lump sum project fees to views generated on YouTube. True Views, not robot views. And, yes, you can tell. In short, there’s a call to adapt, behave like a start-up if you will. With openness to whatever comes. And goes.

Future proofing people. You can’t just keep hiring new talent to keep up with the demands of this new age. Or keep letting people go because they get stagnant and are not up to the latest trends and technologies. People need to be developed, taught, nourished and nurtures so that they are keen and willing to stay with the times, and that they have the right resources and the leadership that guides them towards the future.

Future proofing product. This one is an ever changing one, ever evolving, always following trend and trying to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s hot, what’s not and what the consumer is most demanding. One cannot second guess this, one can only stay with it the tide, ride it to reap maximum impact and benefit for the clients’ brands. Even within individual platforms, the possibilities are always increasing as technologies are enabling new ways to engage the consumer. Look at YouTube. Could you see the 5-second video coming in strong as a marketing tool? Could you see Snapchat or Vine as marketing streams just a few months ago? What’s the future? IOT? Wearable marketing? Yes, of course, and then some. Here’s where you need insight, here’s where you need people within your structure who can spot the hot stuff a heart beat ahead of the rest.

Future proofing clients. This is important, because if the clients don’t believe in what’s around us and what will be around us, you cannot future proof your agency. There’s no point in building structure, capability, talent, if you don’t have a client who believes in it. This requires shared learning, shared data, some hand holding, and a lot of playing prophet.

And that, to summarize is how you be and stay ahead of the rest. By playing prophet. By having a courageous, prophetic point of view that can see and actualize tomorrow, today. And by being nimble, turning around, sideways, forwards, backwards, and sometimes even upside down. That’s what agility is all about.


Published in Arabnet – The Quarterly

Tom Roychoudhury is chief innovations officer of MCN: Middle East Communications Network – one of the largest groups of advertising, marketing, media and social agencies in the region.