The Online Essays: Martin Brooks

Agency Republic's Martin Brooks looks to the stars for inspiration and offers his predictions of how the online marketing agencies of the future could be structured.

Even Russell Grant admits that future-gazing is a hostage to fortune, but I'm going to have a go anyway. The logic is so clear, I believe you can be reasonably confident in predicting what the online marketing agency of the future will look like.

This is a great time to be running a digital agency. Online media grew by 83 per cent (Jupiter says) last year and forecasts for 2004 look even rosier. New measurement technology enables agencies to justify budgets in far more reliable detail than any other channel. There are lots of new briefs and pitches ... but the demand for quality agencies is beginning to outstrip supply. So where's it all heading?

With the moon auspiciously in Cancer, I decided to close the curtains and join hands with a bunch of colleagues and clients. Eyes aloft, we asked: "What is the structure of the online marketing agency of the future?" Soon enough, the voices came through, quietly at first, then loud and clear ...

The profitable, award-winning agency of the future is populated by a group of specialists from different backgrounds, each with a black book full of names of experts in even narrower channels. Work happens collaboratively, in super-fast time. Strategic, conceptual, media and data thinking is developed by an in-house, salaried hub. Income per full-time staff member is high. Additional services are spoked in from an outer ring of approved "permalancers" and sub-contractors offering specialist skills in mobile platforms, distribution, technology, research and more. Not only does it make commercial sense, it makes for much better work ... the smarter viral ideas are born in bedrooms rather than boardrooms.

The future agency has a highly developed sense of, and provision for, the points at which digital connects with other channels.

Its hybrid vigour allows it to integrate with TV or any other response media, because it has hired people from these channels and understands them fully.

In response to major brands holding global online pitches, global holding companies scramble (for the second time) to create properly global standalone digital agency networks. These are outside the management control of ad agencies. Despite the relentless growth of worldwide online spends, some fail by aping the single-office structure of ad networks. Others thrive through boundary-free collaboration.

The agency of the future runs an inspirational graduate recruitment programme and trains talent from scratch. It scours the best ad agencies for the best creatives and planners, because although technology will continue to romp, it knows that creativity is not device-dependent. Ideas from insights are still more important.

Half of the hottest and most respected creative teams in London work in digital. The D&AD has its first president with an online background and half of its awards categories are interactive. A Mr T Beattie, tired of banging on (and on) about the decline of creativity in TV and print, finally goes geek chic, finding creative fulfilment as a spokesman for New Digital.

With the exception of very large, multi-sectored operators (such as COI Communications or BT), clients who split responsibility for media and creative between different agencies will miss out on some of the fundamental benefits of online. Such as accountability. And effectiveness. The agency of the future is responsible for 100 per cent of the results, be they qualified sales or post-impression brand impact scores. It over-invests in media analytics to prove its worth. It optimises campaigns to within an inch of their lives. It has ongoing developmental relationships with media owners. It can prove that its most effective work comes from creative and media teams working together to innovate new formats, placements and messages.

The agency of the future has long-term lead agency status with clients who transact online. It has a much broader constituency from marketing director, across sales director to financial director. Together, client and online agency decide offline media splits and co-brief ad agencies when they're required. The agency hires commercially trained business directors to build true partnerships, with an element of performance-related pay in every remuneration package, linked in turn to employee bonuses. A proportion of its clients outsource their entire marketing function to the agency.

The strategic partnership between client and agency is deeper than ever before. The future shop has an advisory board made up of its senior clients who meet on a quarterly basis. The client board takes an active role in developing agency strategy and plays a major part in the selection of key staff.

The agency of the future knows that its culture matters most - structures can be melted down and re-frozen as long as there's a strong, flexible, differentiated character. It's still real, not virtual. It has a load of fun. It starts more fights, but it's also extremely collaborative and looks outside its walls to affiliates across the world for inspiration.

The agency of the future makes sure that at least half its client base wants to do genuinely creative and innovative work ... otherwise its best people will leave ... which brings us to its biggest challenge: the War for Talent. Very few people have been hired and trained properly during the past three years and there's a severe lack of quality operators, especially in online media and creative. Ultimately, the best structure is the one that can attract and retain the best people.

Martin Brooks is the managing director of Agency Republic.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

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).