A view from Martin Nieri

No more guesswork: it's time to bring customers to the very heart of marketing agencies

The chief executive of Partners Andrews Aldridge explains why getting closer to customers is the key to marketing success.

The career trajectory of Peter Williams, founder of Jack Wills, is one to savour. He admits that when he started his business he didn’t know much about retail. He didn’t know much about fashion. And he didn’t know much about marketing.

But what Williams did know was the customer. He had an insatiable appetite to become an expert in those of sixth-form and university age who would comprise his consumer base.

For Williams it was about having clarity and vision and a clear understanding of how customers think. He was not trying to be all things to all people – knowing that people move on from the brand not because of anything personal or because they suddenly hate the company, but because they’ve naturally moved on to the next stage of their life.

Customer engagement agencies (or CRM agencies, or direct marketing agencies, or whatever you like to call them now) have long advocated singing from a similar hymn sheet to Williams. But how often does it actually happen?

Agencies talk about innovative new ways to mine data. They champion behavioural economics and talk intently about connecting everything up as part of a brand’s connected ecosystem.

Yet investment in this area is often the first thing to drop off the radar when times get tight. When everything has a recovery rate, it’s much easier to look short-term. Google the term "Ogilvy Labs" if you need any further proof.

Putting a man on Venus

The subsequent bemusement of the Ogilvy Labs closure and the industry outpouring towards the need for greater investment in R&D was heartening to see.

However, I’d argue that most of the thought pieces and editorials tackling the cost-cutting exercise missed one important point. Whilst R&D is excellent for allowing agencies to keep asking ‘what’s next?’, it’s even more important to allow agencies to take one step back from the constant battle to be first to something and get back to basics too.

When tackling a client challenge, our job is not to find a way of putting man on Venus (although you’ve probably come across people who think it is). It’s about understanding your customers better than anyone else. Knowing where they are right now, what platforms they use, how they think, how they act and where they want to go next.

And in a time when agencies are working at the speed of light, it’s about being able to do it right now.

That’s where innovation and R&D really comes to the fore. And where agencies have been so bad at investing beyond a cosmetic level.

Bringing customers through the door

Earlier this month, we launched our own Experience Lab. It was an investment, but an investment we felt that we had to make. The lab is a state-of-the-art research and user testing facility based at our 60 Great Portland Street office. The idea is for it to provide a more natural environment where both researcher and researchee feel comfortable, using unobtrusive eye-tracking technology and remote-access streaming to capture those vital subconscious behaviours.

Innovating in this way is what allows for more collaborative and iterative working. It’s a way of genuinely creating people-centric experiences.

A few years ago, the industry got very excited about setting up their offices so that clients could spend more time working in them. We used phrases like ‘co-create’ and wanted it to seem as natural as possible for us to work hand-in-hand to come up with solutions in the most natural ways possible.

But customers were still the elusive missing link. Of course agencies sent their strategists out to run external focus groups, and creatives would head up to a brand’s ‘heartland’ (usually in an industrial estate somewhere just off the M62) for an M&S sandwich and a nosey around a store for a few hours. Yet that’s not enough. As agencies talk more and more about being influenced by customers, we need to know them more intimately than ever.

Maybe now it’s not just about getting out into the big wide world, it’s about getting your customers in too.

Where the new meets the old

Our labs are not there just to create the different, the showy and the new. They’re there to get the basics done better by having the customers involved and making them part of the ongoing cycle.

Then it’s about having the talent and the creativity to use this intimate knowledge to create engaging campaigns and experiences that truly make a difference to people’s lives.

It’s not about changing how much precedence we put on strategy or creativity. It’s not about replacing brilliant creative thinkers with an army of consultants and researchers. You still need those traditional skills to bring these enhanced insights to life.

But what it is about is spending more time with the people who actually matter: the customers. Involving them in your conversations, iterating with them in the same way you iterate with your clients. You don’t have to wait until a campaign has succeeded or failed before you make a difference.

Doing anything but this just boils down to guesswork. I’m not sure Jack Wills became a £420 million business on a few hunches.

Martin Nieri is the chief executive of Partners Andrews Aldridge.

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