Perverse as it might seem, the industry has only itself to blame for Campaign’s failure to select a customer engagement agency of the decade.
This isn’t to suggest that the past 10 years has been a period of unalloyed mediocrity. Quite the reverse. The time has been blessed with numerous examples of agencies that have excelled in the discipline, harnessing innovative technology to award-winning creative work and delivering healthy profits in the process.
But there’s the rub. Because where are they now? Those direct specialists who relentlessly shared Campaign’s annual honours between them and, in doing so, brought what was then known simply as direct marketing from the geeky fringes of the business into the mainstream.
Where are those agencies that so broadened the scope of what they did that, in 2013, Campaign decided to change the title of its award from Direct Agency of the Year to Customer Engagement Agency of the Year to better reflect the growing sophistication of their work.
True, not all major players from that time made it through unscathed. Hit by major client losses, which more than halved its profits, Rapier went into administration to be reborn under the wing of CHI & Partners; Lida (clients included Land Rover, pictured above, right), having been named Agency of the Year both in 2013 and 2014, was so destabilised by account and top talent losses that a merger into its M&C Saatchi parent once looked a possibility.
That said, those agencies that hit top form during the past decade have been, it might be argued, the victims of their own success. OgilvyOne (clients included British Airways, pictured above, left), one of the biggest direct marketing operations in the world and winner of the Agency of the Year award for three successive years from 2010, was subsumed within a restructured Ogilvy group in 2017. An even bigger stir was caused the following year when WPP announced the merger of Wunderman (clients included Ikea, pictured above, centre), its digital specialist and 2017 Campaign winner, with J Walter Thompson.
That this should have been perceived by many across the industry as a takeover of a pillar of the advertising establishment by a digital agency, rather than a marriage of equals, is indicative of how high the CRM star has risen.
Writing in Campaign in 2014, Felix Velarde, a strategy specialist and founder of Hyperinteractive, one of the first digital agencies, cited the well-rounded skill-sets of the CRM specialists as a major reason for this. Indeed, he predicted that the CRM "geeks" of yesteryear will become the industry leaders of tomorrow because they can balance the day-to-day delivery of campaigns with an understanding of the overarching context of what they’re doing.
Drawing on his own experience running CRM masterclasses, Velarde was struck by how quickly the best of the people he was mentoring rose up the career ladder. "At each step they set a target and saw what happened," he said. "Their success was measured. They proved their value to their employers and, in return, rose rapidly. Many of today’s superstar marketers have CRM skills to thank for it."
Initially, the global marcoms groups kept these skills at arm’s length, preferring to buy into digital as a discrete income stream in its own right without necessarily embedding the technical knowhow into traditional marketing disciplines. Publicis Groupe bought Digitas and Razorfish, Aegis acquired Glue, and Omnicom backed several specialist start-ups.
Some traditional agencies, though, were beginning to muscle in on territory that would normally have been the preserve of traditional direct marketing shops – and with some success. Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO signalled its intent by being named Direct Agency of the Year at Cannes in 2010 while CHI & Partners scooped the £8m Churchill Insurance DM account.
At the same time, social media was burgeoning as clients were firmly embracing it as a major marketing tool. Previously, there was a big disconnect between sales and marketing, with major companies employing expensive, but largely ineffective, CRM systems. Sales and marketing were not joined up. Suddenly, millions of people were using emails while the development of mobile and transactional apps opened up opportunities previously undreamed of.
In the new landscape, clients were clamouring for seamless communication, and agency groups set out to satisfy their demands by putting their direct operations at the heart of their offering. Announcing last year’s birth of Wunderman Thompson, Mark Read, WPP’s chief executive, caught the zeitgeist, describing the merged operation as "a formidable combination, bringing together the capabilities our clients are demanding – award-winning creativity alongside deep expertise in technology, data and commerce – in a single organisation".
All well and good. But clients won’t necessarily always buy in to a one-stop shop. For Keith Weed, until recently marketing chief of Unilever, a JWT client, it was always the quality of delivery that mattered most. As he said: "I will go for the best before the easiest."
Also, by submerging their customer engagement specialists into a one-stop shop, do marcoms giants risk extinguishing the vital spark that made those specialists so special?
Earlier this year, Engine announced the culling of its agency brands, including its customer engagement operation, Partners Andrews Aldridge, and WCRS, as part of a group restructure. No matter that PAA, Campaign’s Direct Agency of the Year in 2009, and shortlisted for the title more than 10 times, had a strong creative and financial track record.
A dismayed Steve Aldridge, one of PAA’s founding partners, wonders whether what he perceives as short-sightedness will return to haunt those who wielded the axe. PAA was the template for the way Engine worked, he says. Its collaborative culture became the Engine way. "I fear this latest development is more about following a trend than killing dying brands."
Aldridge’s best hope must be that what happened to PAA and others is part of a cyclical movement and that the best CRM specialists will again stand alone to strut their stuff.
How fascinating it will be to see whether Campaign will be naming a Customer Engagement Agency of the Decade next time around. Watch this space.