This summer, I had the delight of taking a three-month sabbatical. I lost myself in family, friends, writing and reflection. I’ve worked for 20 years, I plan to work for another 20, so it was a "half-time break".
It’s a wonderful exercise to look at your life, your industry and your business with a bit of distance and perspective. I came back refreshed, energised and resolved to do lots of things better and differently.
I chose to re-engage with the business by conducting 30 one-on-one senior client "listening sessions". I wanted to hear their perspective on the industry and on us.
Since September, I have met with the chief executives and chief marketing officers of almost our entire roster. The data is rich and directional. It provides a glimpse into our future, and maybe yours too.
Five words came up again and again: connected, performance, creativity, cost and selling.
These themes are not new – indeed, it is their familiarity that might have made them unfashionable. But they need to be revisited and explored in a digital world. Our management team has just spent two days doing exactly that with Google – aligning our 2014 plans as precisely as possible to those of our clients. The client agenda is not new, but the tools available to us to deliver that agenda really are.
Success was expressed as delivering a truly "connected selling" proposition. Where all elements of the mix drive towards a coherent and joined up offering. Communications that connect to the consumer, to popular culture and to the business.
As we all know, in a digital world, everything must connect. But marketers want their agencies to connect better too. Many are looking for a "new marketing model". They are tired of trying to make inherently competitive agencies work well together. They are bored with the "not invented here" syndrome.
The old demarcations of scope and capability for the ad agency, media agency and digital agency don’t work any more. It’s time for shared agendas and complementary skills. Clients want creative specialists, but they need those specialists to connect.
The new marketing model needs to connect better to the business task. It needs to be built and incentivised around one purpose: performance.
Performance must be at the centre of strategic and creative development. It needs to be baked into everything we do. Clients want "always on" measurement and optimisation.
I’m talking about dashboards in the heart of agency team areas. Same-day sales data that tell us how our content is working and a percentage of every production budget put into a post-launch phase.
Effectiveness, at its worst, is backward-looking and hopeful. Performance is forward-looking and precise.
A performance agenda puts the right data in the right hands, and it fuels and liberates creativity.
Creativity is still what clients most want from their agency. They know that fresh and original ideas can give them an unfair advantage over the competition. That creativity and creative assets can deliver disproportionate return on marketing investment. They know that creativity is a powerful tool that is best outsourced. One marketer said to me: "We need to remind ourselves of the things that you can do that we can’t, and get you doing more of those." As we get ever-more commercial, we must never forget that creative people are special – they can do things that others can’t.
A shift in focus from effectiveness to performance will liberate and elevate our creativity. We need data and insight that inspires and unleashes our most creative thinkers. How many ideas have ended up in the bin because they were answering the wrong questions? Creative development has been used – and, in some cases, abused – by clients as a form of brief development and research.
The new reality is that, if you want volume growth, no matter how good your quality is, cost must be part of your growth proposition
Creative people want to create ideas for brands that drive growth. We are increasingly using the phrase "high-performance creativity". It is the marriage of relevance and difference. Two forces that should never be separated. It drives results and ROI up, and brings consolidated costs down. It reduces wastage.
That brings me to my next theme, one that our industry has been reluctant and squeamish to embrace: cost.
I believe we all have to take this head-on and make cost-reduction a bigger part of our growth narrative with clients. I believe we need to reward and incentivise clients who are willing to consolidate and grow our share. Too often, we fail to frame our growth proposals with enough empathy for client cost pressures.
Most clients are comfortable to grow agency scope and allow businesses like ours to diversify. But it’s a "zero sum game". Share increases for one partner must result in a consolidated cost-reduction.
The new reality is that, if you want volume growth, no matter how good your quality is, cost must be part of your growth proposition.
Marketers want a connected agency offer. They want partners who are expert in creative selling. That leads me to my final theme and one that was talked about more than any other: selling.
All clients talked with passion about the new ways they were selling.
At Bartle Bogle Hegarty, we are now building and managing the e-commerce engines for a number of our clients. This changes everything. Suddenly, our teams are watching sales take place in real time. They don’t need to ask clients for data. They are getting it fast and raw. Those teams are deploying all of the skills that a progressive agency can muster in pursuit of making a sale: user experience, design, creative technology.
It is interesting to remind ourselves that we have much to offer digital retailers. Not least because the principles of selling are enduring: I need to like the organisation that is selling to me; I need to be in the right frame of mind to be sold to; I need you to demonstrate that you know something about me; I need some rational and emotional reassurance before I’m willing to hand over my cash; I need you to confirm the wisdom of my choice post-sale; and I need you to follow up if something goes wrong.
We need to make selling sexy. We need to make creative people feel that work that sells really hard will be more, not less, awarded. If our clients are selling better, and our outputs are driving that growth, then our growth will be much easier to come by.
Terry Leahy famously said: "Target your growth in your customers’ unmet needs." Easy to say, hard to do. What business couldn’t benefit from being more customer-centric?
These are some of the things I believe we should be doing more of in 2014. Some provocations and behaviours that an industry that wants to future-proof itself might consider:
1. Put the customer at the centre. Partner with the best out there in digital CRM and one-to-one marketing. Build a connected offering that is full of specialists. Think "brand out" and "customer in".
2. Put performance front and centre in our businesses. At the start, middle and end of the process. Bake review and optimisation into our culture. Identify only the measures that matter and make measurement fast, accessible and visual.
3. Identify the real business task and unleash our creativity. Inform and inspire our creative people, but celebrate their freshness of perspective. Our outputs need to deliver relevance and difference.
4. Make cost a part of our growth narrative. There is consolidation and growth to be had for businesses that frame their quality offering in commercial terms. Our sell needs to be emotional and rational. Cost is a new reality.
5. Recommit to the enduring principles of selling. Let’s make selling data- and tech-fuelled. Let’s make it exciting and aspirational because, if our clients are selling, then we are growing. What’s more exciting and aspirational than that?
Ben Fennell is the chief executive at Bartle Bogle Hegarty