Feature

Who owns the future?

Campaign assembled representatives from various marketing disciplines, threw in a couple of clients, and invited them to discuss the future of communications.

Paddy Griffith planning partner, Work Club Digital has got a lot of momentum, but we're definitely the new guy on the block. I don't think we own the now, by any means. Digital is a great environment to understand consumers and to gather data, but creativity is a field in which we mimic the ad agencies, to be honest.

However, there's a third arm, which is new, and that's the role of technology. And, for as long as traditional agencies and media agencies under-estimate the role of technology, there's a trick being missed.

Lots of people view technology as a smart way of delivering communications to an end user and maybe to get some feedback. But, for us, it has a much deeper role; it's going to solve a lot of difficult brand questions.

I think being an authentic brand in the world today means being of some use, adding some value to life, through entertainment and information, and through services. Technology is the way to bring that, on budget, to the biggest audience with a serviceable end goal for the consumer.

Jonathan Stead chief executive, Rapier What do you mean by technology?

Griffith A couple of things. One is the interface with the consumer - the access part. But also technology in terms of delivering a service to the consumer. The landmark example is Nike+. It's the application of technology to create something that is part-product, part-brand, part-community movement. This is a creative application of technology that only digital agencies are thinking about. Digital agencies, which have technology in their DNA, are more able to grow their strategic and creative capability than their traditional agency counterparts are able to mimic digital's intuition for technology.

I find traditional and media agencies are pretty conservative. Conservative people tend to be the ones in power, where they're able to retain a grip on the budget and the status quo. They evolve by small gradations, but digital agencies are much more nimble. Our learning curve is built to be really fast, while for traditional structures to get into that space probably involves taking a massive hit on budgets as well as doubling the workload. If you create a situation where consumers are taking messages of their own volition, suddenly marketers can do what they've always wanted to do, which is reduce budgets.

Phil Georgiadis chief executive, Walker Media If you're talking about reducing budgets, you must be clear on how you define digital. The Internet Advertising Bureau defines it as £2 billion of spend, when actually it's about £400 million. It's going on sales and distribution techniques; it's not what you call creativity. What you're talking about is hard to measure. The truth is, the case has yet to be proven other than on brands such as Nike. It's easy to use examples such as Nike, but it's much harder to define what you're going to do for Marks & Spencer, or Ragu, or some fishfinger brand.

The biggest problem to me is that digital, which encompasses search and affiliate marketing, has been defined as part of the ad budget and has meant that a lot of marketers have reduced their brand-building budgets, something they can't afford to do in the world we live in.

So if your headline is technology, and consumer engagement with technology is going to mean that marketers can spend less money, I think it will be very interesting to see how many of your technology-led ideas are sustainable without the support of other forms of engagement that are broader and more public.

Greg Nugent marketing director, Euro-star But as a client, I say the aim is not to spend less money, it's to make more money. I think digital needs to do two things to say it is truly the future.

One is to really break though, because the big guys still dominate this landscape, and it's very easy for the big guys to recruit, to multiskill and to change the dynamics of an agency.

The other thing I don't think digital is particularly good at is effectiveness. Other parts of the industry have become quite good at demonstrating effect. M&S doesn't struggle every year to increase its budget because it's constantly proving that it's effective. I don't get that from digital.

Philip Almond UK marketing director, Diageo What's stopping me putting even bigger bets in digital (we've been experimenting a lot recently) is effectiveness. I know what I'm going to get on TV; I still don't quite know what I'll get from digital. That kind of idealised Nike-type solution is the Holy Grail, but it's much like the stuff we've done on Smirnoff "tea partay", which was downloaded millions of times.

If you look at the number of brands trying to do that, and that have enough luck to get it right, it's one in 100. So you're playing a very risky game.

Griffith I'm trying to think about five or ten years' time. We need to get a lot more professional on lots of things, not just accountability.

Georgiadis We could have had exactly the same conversation five years ago.

Stead I think the best thing about digital is it has been a fantastic catalyst to get us all to challenge things that we should have been challenging before it came along.

Nugent Digital has made it much more difficult to rely on an easy process to do what you set out to achieve. The BACC is approving something like 52,000 scripts a year. It used to approve 12,000 scripts a year. Digital has made us think it's still possible to get hold of these people; it's just more problematic and there's more micro targeting than we're used to.

Stead So if you say this technology is important, I don't see that as an insurmountable challenge. I'm open to understanding the world I'm trying to operate in, and our clients are too.

Griffith You're seeing it as a mechanic; communications as a transactional relationship with the consumer. We think it's about creating messages and experiences.

Stead The reality is, within the next five years, all the people we will have taken on will live much more of their lives engaging with brands in the kind of ways you're talking about. You have to make sure you hire in the expertise and create a culture that has no prejudice in favour, or against any particular solution.

Griffith That's something that the big agencies haven't achieved at all. The people who run the businesses still haven't got it.

Johnny Hornby founding partner, CHI & Partners I wonder if the channel debate isn't the wrong one. Not that I want to pooh-pooh the whole debate, but I don't see there's a competition between channels.

It's about sitting down with very senior clients who are asking: "What's my brand? What are my business challenges? Have I got some smart partners that I really want to spend time with?" I think that the future for all of us is to make sure we're in that position and that we've got the expertise to deliver it in every channel.

Almond If you're asking who owns the future, it's the client. We've got a massive choice of ways to get at consumers, to get them to participate in ways that are much more interesting from a brand marketing point of view. We have a load of companies all starting to recognise that we're actually interested in the big idea, and that how we exploit it in terms of channel is an important upfront choice, but subsidiary to it. The challenge for us is how you identify what you need, what that big idea is, and then ensure that you put planning and creativity at the heart of choosing who the partner will be.

So I'm in the "get all the talent that you can and get it working together" camp, but the agencies' financial prerogative is making that difficult.

Hornby I agree with that, because in lots of agency groups, everyone's got separate targets and they can't help but compete, fighting like rats in a sack. If you make it one bottom line, it doesn't matter whether it's all on-trade promotion, a new website or a 90-second TV commercial.

Stead But from a client point of view, not only might you not want to buy a one-stop shop because you're quite happy to handle the relationships with different suppliers, but you're actually not prepared to compromise on the level of skill and talent in any one area.

I agree about having a single bottom line, because I think for an agency to give the very best advice to clients it needs to be without predjudice over how much money it's going to make out of that advice.

Nugent For me, the debate about whether it's one shop, three shops, nine shops is a "one day out of 365 days of the year" conversation, no more. The biggest thing I'm focused on, the thing that really bothers me, is the strategy. And if someone comes in with one then they're in, that's it, because there's opportunity there. And that is what digital has done. Big businesses are taking big bets, like M&S with climate change. It'll benefit from that; it's a spotted opportunity.

Georgiadis Walker Media works for M&S. If it had gone to a digital agency, that agency probably wouldn't have suggested it bought five full-colour pages in old-fashioned newspapers over a week. A digital agency's startpoint wouldn't be reach; it would be technique. I think, in this sense, digital agencies are more conservative. We have to embrace a level of wastage in communication and achieving cut-through can often further compromise the "perfect" plan. I would say this, wouldn't I, but what's made M&S's great advertising commercially successful is the weight of it. It's great creative, but - importantly - it wins effectiveness not creative awards. We happen to have occupied very traditional media territory

Nugent The channel debate is well downstream; the first sort of debate is the strategic debate.

Georgiadis Twenty years ago there wasn't a channel debate and therefore communications channels couldn't kill off bad ideas. Good creativity couldn't be killed off by bad media. We've now got two things that can kill off great ideas. One is not enough money, and the other is bad channel planning. The future isn't owned by any individual, but by those clients who understand that great ideas need to be very clearly interrogated in terms of how they will live in the public consciousness. Too often the channel planning is leaning towards seizing an apparent opportunity of fragmentation and ending up trying to be too ambitious and leaving the consumer to join up the dots of all these different channels and all these different messages.

Nugent For agencies, the future is in strategy.

Stead Yes, it should be strategy first, then brilliant ideas later.

Nugent I think digital does struggle in proper strategy. When I started in this industry, I was working with Lowe and Abbott Mead Vickers and there was some intimidating strategic thinking in those agencies. Now, we've got the same amount of strategists, but there are five times as many agencies around.

Hornby When you talk about the future, sometimes the past can be a good guide. I started in this business in 1990 at Ogilvy, when it was full service, and the great thing about that was when you sat down to work on a client's problem you had all of those people together in a room. Clients want a big strategic idea for their brand. That's number one. The second thing they want is comms planning advice, and I think the advent of Naked, like digital, woke everyone else up.

Almond I think we're all agreed about the big idea and the need to think strategically, but the challenge comes down to how agencies are organised.

Georgiadis I think planners have been cowed and intimidated by over-promising from media agencies and other technique-based agencies. I grew up at WCRS with great strategic planners, and I saw the decoupling of qualitative and quantitative research at a time when clients wanted quant not qual. They took the qual for granted.

The truth is that media agencies promised the client that they'd take over the consumer analysis, they would be the guardian of that, leaving those poor great brains in creative agencies to worry about a creative brief. Everyone should have said: "Fuck off. You've just come out of buying some TV spots."

There are some great strategic planners, but I'd say proportionately they still sit in creative agencies. However, they've been neutered by a process of channel and technique claims that have under-delivered for the past 15 years and still haven't proven a better solution than Mark Roalfe and me and a few others sitting in a room delivering good, robust, muscular communication.

Hornby I think Jeremy Bullmore said something a bit like advertising is no more complicated than getting the right people in the right room at the right time.

Nugent I do know that the good strategic start point is the important factor. Any agency can follow good strategy. The debate is often around weak or poorly communicated ideas that aren't strategic.

Georgiadis In terms of who leads it, I'll be honest enough to say, with M&S, we deliver robust media advice, but we don't lead, we follow. And we don't enter M&S work for media awards. It's never going to win because juries will say "what's so clever about that? They've used newspapers and they've spent a lot of money that went on telly." The strategy M&S is executing, led by a media plan, doesn't make any sense.

Ten years ago, Carat said research should lead the way and it should be media research. It doesn't lead with research any longer. Then Naked came along and said: "The world starts with us because we're neutral, not channel-dependent. We're at the heart of the creation of the strategy", but in my view it is disconnected with the reality of most clients' worlds, and it doesn't have a sustainable business model. In the end,the people who survive are the ones that are commercially successful, not the ones who make all the noise.

Nugent Agencies need to decide if they want to fill that strategic space. Because it's so easy for us to turn to McKinsey.

Georgiadis You get terrific analysis, but they won't bring you "Your M&S".

Nugent Previously, I've been in places where you don't need a McKinsey because the agencies are thinking at that level.

Hornby The most exciting thing that we all do in our business is where we become trusted partners of business leaders, where we can have a role in developing a big idea for their brand that can help turn around their business. That is the sexiest thing about doing what we do. That's the bit where we add most value and I think that, wherever the idea comes from, when you get to that level of discussion no-one cares about the discipline.

Chief execs and board marketing directors aren't spending most of their time asking what channel should this be in. They're saying: "Can I have a fantastic idea that can turn this brand around, and how am I going to make sure it makes it with consumers?"

Whether we do it as separate agencies or one agency, the real magic comes when there's a brilliant client at the heart of it. But then, around him, you've got four or five different people that either work for the same place or forget they have different bottom lines because they get so excited or inspired. I think that's what we need.

Nugent You guys love that; so do I. I love it when people around the table feel they're a partner: the late nights; everyone working more than they intended to, and thinking: "We're going to deliver this together."

Almond We've got the situation you describe on some of our brands and not on the others, and the challenge for me is often not the agency partner, but the senior brand manager.

So much of this comes back to people and talent and how you manage them. Agencies sometimes think we're all about cost. We're not; it's about: "Where is the talent?"

Nugent The myth about procurement is absolute bollocks.

Stead One of the difficulties facing digital agencies is that the kind of strategic and communications planning talent we're discussing costs a lot of money. Clients are willing to pay for it, but there's a Catch 22 for digital agencies. The client won't do it until you've got the talent, and you can't afford the talent until the client hires you.

Griffith It can't happen overnight. It's an evolution. It's one client at a time. I think that if digital people do have a role at that strategic table, it is a deeper intuition for how the world is changing.

Hornby Is that fair to media people? There's a slight arrogance to digital agency chat. Media people spend their entire time observing behaviour, and I'm not sure you can say the sole preserve of understanding the future belongs in digital agencies.

Griffith I'm just saying let's move the whole debate on and understand that there's something deeper.

Georgiadis It's always been the case that some things are beyond our capability. Twenty-five years ago there were loads of specialist magazines in WH Smith that I sort of knew existed, but weren't part of my palette of communication.

This is where digital people need to respect and learn from the past. There's always been a surfeit of channels. It's just much more visible now. The availability of digital media does tend to be at the forefront of the argument by digital people of why you should use it.

Griffith That's a brilliant expose of why digital agencies have had to shout to get on the table of top clients.

In fact, our strategy is a sequential process of development. I'm in the process of launching a new digital agency, and we're saying "That was phase one delivered", because we have some share of voice and a channel presence now.

Georgiadis What will be the legacy of phase one then?

Griffith The incredible growth. It's scared you guys into reacting. It's given the clients the ability to test new things.

Georgiadis My business was doing perfectly well without being intimidated.

Almond This is where the client wants to go to sleep. This kind of bickering gets really irritating.

Georgiadis One thing digital agencies do better than their advertising agency counterparts is liberate creative people to engage with clients. I think that would really help a traditional creative agency, because personally I think they still own the largest stock of intellectual capital; they've currently got the edge. We're in a world where we're all trying to define our identity; we're all over-promising; we're all under-delivering in many ways around the edges, but the bit that we all agree is great strategy. But great creativity will always be a winning thing. Whether that's award-winning style for Nike or hard-working for M&S, there should be visibility of the originator of the creative idea. If traditional agencies don't do that, they're missing an opportunity.

Hornby There's an interesting play for the media agencies, because you wonder if there's an opportunity for a media agency to bring in creative expertise or digital. "We're spending a gazillion pounds of your money, Mr Client. Why not let us do it all for you ...?"

Georgiadis I can see why MindShare might do that. I can only cope with so much and I've got enough to do. We're very busy.

What we do need in each of our companies is a level of understanding, not ownership. So as long as Johnny's comms planner working with a Walker Media client was respectful and not trying to dictate the input of Walker, I would have no problem. The problem lies when agencies have no respect for each other.

Stead You've got to know what you don't know.

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