Last week, at an International Advertising Association lunch, WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell implied that his company's competitive profile should focus more firmly beyond traditional media and creative advertising solutions on to offering the best strategic and consumer insight.
Indeed, Sorrell's ideas seem to reflect a shift in policy among advertisers, which is resulting in agencies having to increasingly produce searing consumer insight first and foremost, with creative execution following.
Will Collin, a founding partner of Naked Communications, says: "Consumers are now demanding higher levels of proof to confirm that a brand is right for them. Agencies, therefore, need to provide deeper and more meaningful consumer insights in order to shape a brand's direction, rather than just providing an idea that helps to create a new ad campaign."
This means that clients are also increasingly demanding proof that their ad agencies are providing them with good value.
Agencies have been slow to grasp the possibilities of scientific advancements such as brain-mapping and neuro-marketing, but to enhance and prove the value of their work, such techniques need to become a more prevalent part of the advertising process.
Kevin Brown, the global director of engagement planning at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says: "Clients are constantly scrutinising what their agencies can do for them. And the one thing that a good agency can provide is its expertise in understanding consumers."
Abi Comber, the senior manager of global marketing at British Airways, bears witness to this. "In these conditions, we need to make sure that we're constantly testing and always learning from our findings. We can't be seen to be standing still, just running ads that may have worked in the past," she says. "Agencies are going to be even more critical now in helping to develop and solve all of our business problems, rather than just producing basic communications."
Some, such as Mark Cranmer, a media consultant and the former EMEA chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group and worldwide chief executive of Research International, even go so far as to say that great creative work won't get made without good consumer insight. "If work isn't driven by what the consumer wants, it becomes less powerful because it goes through a process that is detached from how it's used in the outside world," he says.
The need for good consumer insight is therefore clear, and both agencies and clients are beginning to take it very seriously. Comber, for instance, points to the fact that BA, much like a number of large companies, now has a massive dedicated consumer insight division of its own, and says that one of the first things she ensures is that her agencies place huge emphasis on it too.
And if they are to take it seriously, agencies need to change their process for tackling a brief. Collin argues that too often, the brief goes straight to the creative team, when it should start with the planner. He says: "Chronologically, the insight must come first. It is the springboard for creativity. Great insights have the power to influence how a great campaign works. They can even form the basis as to how a client's business can grow and develop."
It seems that an agency that can't deliver transformational consumer insight and use that understanding to illustrate the value of its work is increasingly putting itself at a significant disadvantage.
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AGENCY HEAD - Robin Wight, President, The Engine Group
"There's a clear connection between consumer insight and the quality of the creative product that's produced.
"The key is that in today's market, you need a neutral environment where any one of a number of marketing disciplines can be used to solve a problem. That helps agencies focus more intently on what the consumer wants, and therefore will help provide a better creative product."
CLIENT - Abi Comber, senior manager of global marketing, British Airways
"Most great campaigns are developed from really key insights, so now more than ever we need to make sure that our insight is bang up-to-date.
"Big companies now have massive dedicated consumer insight divisions, as do agencies, so we have to make sure that we're always on top of our findings.
"At BA, we have a huge amount of data that can help us target each and every customer individually, so we need to ensure that we take full advantage of that when it comes to producing the creative."
MEDIA CONSULTANT - Mark Cranmer, consultant
"I think that consumer insight and the creative output are both more important than ever. What's dangerous is when one is given precedence over the other, and the trouble is that this does happen a lot.
"This is happening because advertisers can't assert themselves on a consumer in the same way they used to, as consumers are far less tolerant now.
"Consumers are becoming increasingly cautious about how they spend their money, so brands need to let them know that the product is relevant to them."
PLANNER - Nikki Crumpton, chief strategy officer, McCann Erickson
"The increasing importance of consumer insight has an element of truth in it, but work can only engage the consumer if it's excellent creatively as well. We don't just put a brief on a 96-sheet poster, do we?
"I think the best focus for an agency is to have great creative strategists, and great strategic creatives. I've been in hundreds of client meetings, for example, where the creatives spend more time arguing about the strategy than the creative side of the work."