This article started as a rant in Nice airport, as I waited for my delayed flight from Cannes, aimed at how incredibly risk averse and short-sighted we can be as an industry and how two quick fixes (putting audiences and channels before content development and a balanced approach to brand and demand KPIs) could solve a lot of our ills.
It quickly became a forceful case for a new approach to our business, destroying old and irrelevant models and embracing the idea that media is everything and making it fun again. Yes it’s about driving business but it’s also about creating new things and not being held back by every audit and every conservative voice.
Special thanks to Rob Norman, Ernie Simon, Nilufar Fowler, Marco Rimini, Amrita Randhawa, Gowthaman Ragothaman, Adam Gerhart, Helen McRae, Katja Brandt, Lyndon Morant, Prasanth Kumar, Greg Brooks, Katie Rigg-Smith and Ashutosh Srivastava for ranting together. Like everything, it takes a team. We hope you enjoy it.
The Cannes rants
There are three broad types of ranters at Cannes in our business, of which I am one.
The first say "we are all about the idea and all about the content". The second say, "no, no, that’s yesterday, modern marketing is all about the last click and final sale". The last say, "rubbish, we want to save money myopically and we want everything cheap – who cares if it actually drives the business? Just buy it cheaper than last year and get someone else to measure it and say its cheaper".
This is a recipe for conflict between every stakeholder and positions are hardening, not softening.
Legacy structures are dominating behaviour and at the exact moment that clients are looking for ways of connecting all the pieces together we are forcing them apart and asking them to choose. While we do that, consumer demand is at its most sclerotic since World War II and the business of generating brand and demand has become equally arthritic.
Our business is now characterised by an agency and advertiser ecosystem that faces a stark choice between thoughtful risk-taking that supports now and builds a new base for tomorrow, or paralysis induced by the pursuit of the price of everything. Looking on at our sector-systemic travails from afar are Amazon, Google, Facebook, Alibaba and Tencent, glad as they can be that, "they didn't start from there".
We have huge potential as an industry to be a force for good and for change but we keep shooting ourselves in the foot and remain bound by our own timidity. We need to play with new models with brave clients and embrace the anti-agency, or at least the anti-agency of conservatism and tradition. We need audience, channel and content in one adapting repeatable model not the old ways of working.
Just stop it – there is a large section of our industry still living in the 1980s believing that agency-led, brand-centric, creative-first advertising is the way to go. This misunderstands the transformation our clients are going through. Product brand-centricity was a consequence of a one-off set of media possibilities around broadcast TV, less intense competition, passive retailers and consumers with few entertainment possibilities.
Clients are now being transformed at the corporate level not the brand level. This is about rewiring the need, number and purpose of brands. Clients need a data, technology and insights spine on which to build, create and disseminate content in real time across a variety of brands across their business. This can't be solely about the brand idea anymore.
Not that either – marketing is being forced into short term sales-driven KPIs at the expense of longer-term brand-building KPIs just to keep the spends up but without the means to measure the short-term sales well enough to see if they will contribute to the long-term. If you are a platform business Amazon or Booking.com or Spotify you neither have that problem nor understand it.
The data feeds the team and the audience and the message are targeted and adapted. The brands build through the interactions. If you are not an integrated platform brand you can't see the long through the short. You are blind.
For these clients performance metrics are being seen as progressive, but it isn’t necessarily so. This increased performance ROI is creaming the most profitable top layer off decades of brand marketing; it is literally cashing in brand equity. There is no reinvesting (reseeding) in the next generation of consumers.
Most critically, this process is seen as being so easy, I can do it myself. The push to reduce costs and investment via the procurement process is seen as very successful (reduced amounts spent in media / content and ROI went up in the short-term). The mentality is: "all other things remaining constant, a lower cost will yield a higher ROI and better returns." All other things are constant in short term but not in the long-term and the shift down the funnel masks the long-term health damage, the way smoking has no ill effects – for years – in the short-term.
I think the third and final "buy it cheaper" ranters really know that its not about them but the pressure on chief marketing officers of failing business models is pushing them to live purely in the short term. Every industry is looking at their model as being under siege by activists or acquirers – real or imagined – and driving the need to crush all costs in the most impersonal and short term way possible. The whole brand business has become transactional all the way to the core. They aren't building for the long-term. It's safe to say that activist investors and the new breed of marketing they are spawning, most definitely and unapologetically do not care.
We need to have a view of what a brand is, what value it provides and how they will be effectively constructed in an audience/data-driven world. Brands are something to be invested in (actually it's an investment in building a consumer); without a clear idea of how (and over what time frame and in what form) it delivers value back to investors, it doesn't stand a chance of getting support and the short term wins. We have to balance both.
The threat to agencies is not the ANA or procurement or consultants, it is their own addiction to dated models and an inability to conquer the three rants and create something new.
The clients don't want a world that dwells solely in the lower funnel. Any new business model embraces both upper and lower funnel, both brand and demand. It is both about the big idea and the 1,000s of iterations of that big idea – it’s just that the vast majority of clients aren't doing that very well or systemically. They don't want us building a data monster dwelling in the lower-funnel data lake.
Platform businesses know this. Amazon doesn’t have a data business; it has a customer business: "know me to serve me". It obsessively focuses on the audience now and for tomorrow and that is key lesson for the ranters, audience first. We need to seek information asymmetries just like bankers or traders, but not like the ranting trinity in an anachronistic world.
The fightback starts with a joint client-agency business model, a rebirth of brand for that model, a data spine specific to the clients, informed by customer data and actions, by event-level media data, by transaction data wrapped into tight packs to be tossed over each wall of every garden and brought safely home and measured comparatively and holistically by someone who is not interested in a single outcome.
Once clients and agencies accept they need help there are three stages to a framework they need to work through and that is equally simple:
1. What is the balance between brand and demand for their integrated business model?
2. What is global, what is national and what Is hubbed?
3. What is their redefinition of how media and content work together to build for tomorrow through action today and how do you play the strongest hand you can at every point that brands and consumers meet from Facebook, to Walmart, The New York Times or an Amazon search.
If you do that, there is no transparency debate or lingering mutual agency/client distrust – it forces such a close partnership as to be almost a JV. We share our data, we live together, we analyse, we act and we go again and again as the sales mount up.
Our future is a series of these joint ventures with our clients – a network of networks – re-organised with the channel and audience first and with KPIs that align brand and demand.
You need a leader to drive change, a digital platform team to spot the irregularities, a fluid creative hive to deliver the content and a crack measurement team to bring it all together. An adaptive marketing team for an adaptive age.
These produce insight from the campaign to the corporate level and create data asymmetries without which competitive advantage is impossible. Dated agency structures operating dated models in the service of enterprises that have not embraced the value of iterative relevance are not going to be part of the future's roadmap.
Why do all this? Not because you will die if you don’t (though you will) but because we need a media uprising to depose the ranters, expose the defeatists and naysayers on the margins and start from the right place to combine audiences, content and results to drive better business. Let's fix the existential issues together, an audience-first media revolution that balances brand and outcomes and have some fun doing it.
Simple if you are brave enough.
Nick Emery is global chief executive of Mindshare