Digital Essays: The agency of the future

While no-one knows what the future holds for sure, those who prepare well will be best-placed.

The clear implication of writing an essay on the agency of the future is that the writer knows what the future holds for advertising, marketing and communications. So if you are of the type who buys books on how to make a million in the property market, or believes the new translation of Nostradamus will help you pick a winner at next year's Grand National, then this essay may disappoint. My tea leaves this morning were hard to read.

If, on the other hand, you treat self-appointed digital soothsayers with a healthy dose of cynicism and question why those who say the future is about mobile, online or search marketing have built an agency around the production of online ads or represent a leading search portal, then read on.

The reality is that the advertising, marketing and communications models of the future are yet to develop fully. What these models will finally become is still open to debate. Attend any major conference on this subject and you will hear endless opinions on what the future holds. Perhaps only one thing is certain - the future is all about increasing degrees of integration, in any and every sphere.

So, if we are uncertain of the make-up of the future digital consumer landscape, is it actually possible to define the agency of the future?

I believe it is, and, to build the agency of the future, investment in research and an understanding of all the principle emerging digital technologies and associated consumers trends needs to be made.

Only by doing this can agencies be ready to take advantage of digital technologies that will support future consumer trends and behaviour. Whether this will be user-generated content, online social networking or innovations in consumer data collection, agencies must be ready to lead and advise their clients in these areas.

Great agencies are developing initiatives to allow us to prepare for what the future may hold by appointing specialist teams to focus on emerging digital trends. Of course, some of these trends may not fulfil their early potential, while others may become central to how consumers behave. What is important, though, is that the agency is prepared and can therefore prepare clients for what the future will bring.

This calls for considerable investment in terms of time and intellectual capital. But this does not mean the existing agency model is now defunct.

The traditional pillars and skills that agencies are built on are still relevant today and will be in the future; they just need to embrace digital, bring it into the heart of the agency and understand that innovation means constant change and learning.

Digital communications, unlike traditional above- and below-the-line disciplines, are inherently innovative and require constant review, so a close eye must be kept on emerging technologies, innovations and marketing trends. It is therefore not a question of whether digital has become a central pillar of what agencies do. The real question is how agencies can stay innovative while integrating digital into every discipline. The claim that agencies somehow do not have the skills to meet the challenges of the emerging digital future is simply wrong.

Take podcasting, for instance. The skills needed to create and produce engaging podcasts have their heritage in the creative writing and expertise of radio production. Take the Ricky Gervais podcasts as proof. Some of the most successful online ad campaigns I have worked on have come from the output of the below-the-line creative teams, who are more used to producing award-winning direct marketing.

Then there is the ongoing debate on the death of the 30-second spot, the advent of ad-skipping technology and audience migration online. The reality is that live television such as sporting events still draws the premium advertising spots and viewers tend not to skip since they are watching live. Data also shows that even though viewers have more choice with the expanding digital landscape, we are still watching television programmes in real-time in considerable numbers.

So although digital will force the existing model to change, the traditional broadcast spot will still have huge relevance. Therefore, the digital future will see broadcast advertising and online truly integrating: the broadcast spot will be the macro starting point for a campaign, while digital channels will be used for micro-targeting.

Yes, the agency of the future will be different. But the changes will be more subtle than some digital revolutionaries would have you believe.

Those agencies that invest in preparing for what the new landscape will look like will, of course, be in the strongest position. But it will still be talent that drives success. What will identify those successful agencies will be the extent to which digital innovation is at the heart of the decision-making process.

The agency of the future will have a leadership that ensures all of its traditional disciplines consider the opportunities afforded by digital marketing. Agency of the future chief executives must, implicitly, become chief innovation officers, ensuring innovation is central to agency development.

They must ensure collaboration between above- and below-the-line disciplines is seamless; having a single P&L helps.

This model has been implemented at Arc and Leo Burnett and is one way to ensure a focus on collaboration and agency goals. And do not forget that processes, training, talent and resources need to be available to guarantee readiness for a future that, in reality, is changing every six months.

The agencies that commit to this strategy will be best placed to navigate the future. After all, it is not about knowing exactly what the future is. It is about being ready for it.

- Jim Mullen is the head of interactive at Arc Worldwide.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).