Fair play there's no Customer Engagement Agency of the Decade
A view from James Champ

Fair play there's no Customer Engagement Agency of the Decade

Let's stop redefining what we do all the time and focus on getting new customers.

Last week, Campaign failed to recognise a Customer Engagement Agency of the Decade – mainly, it seems, because it couldn’t find one.

I can’t say that I blame Campaign. If ever a category of agency were designed to confuse, it’s customer engagement. Or is that direct marketing? Or does DM actually stand for direct mail (it’s making a comeback, apparently, just like vinyl). Or, given that the article mentioned agencies such as Glue and Razorfish, should it be digital (but not digital innovation)? How about CRM? Data-led marketing? Below-the-line?

In fact, what on Earth do I do at work every day?

I spent 10 years above-the-line, in agencies such as DFGW and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Then I knew exactly what my job was; I was there to help make brand ads. (And by "make", I mean post-rationalise.) I could get my head around that; ads were ads – basically unchanged since newspapers, posters and TV were invented.

Today, brand ads are still around. They work as well as they have ever done (which can be very well indeed). Rumours of their death are still greatly exaggerated. If you want a nice, uncomplicated career, go above-the-line.

But in 2002, I moved below-the-line to Craik Jones and have done the whole direct-relationship-customer-mailing-vinyl-coupon-engagement-digital thing ever since. Which is where it got confusing.

For a while, the sector was more or less held together by two things: the fact that you could point to an immediate return and the fact that most of what we did got shoved through people’s letterboxes.

Then everything changed because, you know, internet. In my last year at Craik Jones, I did the planning for two projects for First Direct: a beautiful box of fuzzy felt that won the Data & Marketing Association Grand Prix and some depressing run-of-network banners that won absolutely nothing – certainly not new customers.

Since then, I’ve worked with channels including TV, direct mail, electronic direct mail, digital advertising, website design, content, radio, events, outdoor and beermats. Most in the past year alone. I’ve worked at agencies with data at their core and agencies that could barely count, let alone spell Pinocchio.

So how to define that? That ragtag fleet of Proximitys, Lidas, Stacks and Rapps?

I think we get new customers for our clients.

Of course, so do all agencies. The difference is that we get them right now.

Brand advertising will acquire customers – or, more accurately, it will influence tiny portions of your prospects’ decision-making processes so that, at some point in the future, they will be more likely to choose your brand over your rivals’. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff really works and is massively valuable (see Andrew Ehrenberg, Byron Sharp, Les Binet, Peter Field, Mark Ritson, David Ogilvy and Lesie Butterfield, if you don’t believe me).

But maybe you want a customer immediately, or at least in the next few weeks. That’s where we can help.

Sometimes, it seems as though getting new customers is frowned upon – for example, most readers of Binet and Field’s research (at least, the ones I’ve spoken to about it) seem to focus on the Big Consistent Brand Idea, pretty much ignoring the 40% of the budget the authors say should go to "activation".

But to a planner, there are few things more satisfying than being able to say things such as "For every pound you spent on this campaign, you made £256" or "We’ve hit your year’s target in 12 weeks" or "The customers we’ve signed up spend twice as much as everyone else".

Note that this is not "customer engagement". No business in the world has a loyal band of customers to engage. Just people who chose them last time round and might well choose another brand when they’re next in the market.

Instead, it is customer acquisition – and it’s important because if a business doesn’t get new customers, and keep on getting them, it will die.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that "getting new customers" is why we’re all here in the first place. And why what we do is becoming more and more important to networks. It’s why people with DM backgrounds – people such as Annette King, Xavier Rees, Steve Aldridge and, hell, even Mark Read himself – are taking leading roles in their networks.

I’ll admit it: I’m annoyed that no agency like mine was recognised as "Agency of the Decade". (And I can’t imagine what they’re feeling at Proximity or TMW Unlimited). But perhaps if we hadn’t been so willing to redefine ourselves to reflect the latest fashion, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

Our job is very clear. It’s getting people to buy – now. So you could certainly call us customer acquisition agencies. Maybe even direct response. And I quite like the idea of an instant gratification agency.

But, really, if you’re going to call us anything, call us the 40%.

James Champ is chief strategy officer at Stack
Picture: Getty Images

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