The year ahead for digital agencies is set to be Darwinian
A view from Chris Clarke

The year ahead for digital agencies is set to be Darwinian

If last year taught us anything, it is that we need to cater to filter bubbles and that authenticity is paramount, Chris Clarke suggests.

Well, goodbye, 2016 – you steaming pile of narky doo-doo. And, hello, 2017.

What rough beast might you be then? Can it get worse? I expect so. With the swivel-eyed loons piloting this country towards a hard Brexit and Donald Trump unleashing his special band of idiots on US legislation, things could be a little choppy. But my job here is to forecast a little of the weather heading towards those marketing and creative shops that in some significant way call themselves digital.

Digital has been an unfashionable word of late. Many commentators have called it obsolete and many agencies have distanced themselves from their digital roots. I’d like to see it come back a bit in 2017. What was the cataclysmic fuck-fest of 2016 (celebrity deaths aside) if it wasn’t driven by digital?

Cambridge Analytica, a business born of psychological operations in Afghanistan, provided the data model behind Brexit and the Trump win. And how did the company do it? By running personality tests on Facebook for years, building a detailed psychological profile of social media users, allowing campaigners to hyper-target their messages and make significant marginal gains.

So the devil really is in the data. Agencies have been peddling data one way or another for years and, in recent times, the peddling has been furious. 2017 is the year that some offerings will become clear and others will get found out for the smoke and mirrors that they are. And then, hopefully, we can focus on what to do with the data – real insight powering ideas that make a difference.

If we have learned anything from Brexit and Trump, it’s that you have to cater to the filter bubbles your audiences are trapped in. This challenges the classic "big idea".

Some commentators have said that empathy is dying – we don’t understand the people outside our own closed networks. So how can brands expect to succeed by starting with a big TV ad and working backwards? Yet many of them still do.

When planning for 2017, let’s hope they remember that Trump underspent Hillary Clinton by 50% and cut through with bold messages hyper-targeted at different psychological profiles. The time to be timid with your brand content is surely over. So the content that brands make and sponsor needs to, more than ever, be authentic.

Yes, I know we’ve heard it all before, but this is an accelerating trend. Agencies of all kinds are losing out to content producers that refuse to change their tone of voice to fit with a brand. This means a bit less consistency but a lot more cut-through to specific audiences. And, by the way, the customer doesn’t notice because they only see the stuff in their own bubble.

Traditional agencies have a harder time leaving the "rules" of branding behind than those born in digital. I want to see the anarchic spirit of the early web come back in 2017, because brands will need it. If they don’t have it or can’t buy it from their agencies, they will get it at source with Vice, Unilad, BuzzFeed or the legion of YouTubers.

We have made real headway with our own clients in 2016, helping them embrace this uncomfortable but rewarding reality.

PewDiePie’s review of the Nissan Micra was, for us and our client, an interesting and eye-opening process. 2017 will see us and other agencies embrace the chaos a bit more. So if authenticity continues to be the order of the day, agency authenticity will become a thing this year.

An oxymoron, you might argue – agency branding and positioning, and many an agency process, reek of snake oil and gobbledegook. Clients have had enough.

On the more serious side, last year’s Association of National Advertisers report in the US exposed some dodgy, less-than-transparent practices. Names weren’t named but, in 2017, there will be a premium on transparency and openness.

I’d like to see the practice of outing dishonesty extend to outing ridiculous positioning and agency over-claim. Our collective survival depends on our willingness to work more transparently and collaboratively.

Clients are showing a willingness to move core agency functions in-house, smart content producers are doing more and more directly with clients and the big tech players also have much to offer.

Agencies that don’t have deep engineering capability and creatives who understand tech and media will struggle to bring much to the table. The ones that do have a huge role to play, shaping the big tech and digital media partnerships that clients will be making in 2017.

The big consultancies are set to make waves creatively this year. Accenture now has Karmarama, while Deloitte Digital is skilling up creatively. We’ll see more turf wars between the big digital networks such as Publicis.Sapient (which includes my own agency, DigitasLBi) and the once-dismissed men in suits who now "get" creative.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Possible will do in 2017 – the network has been hiring well and isn’t afraid to be digital. There are fresh new start-ups making a noise, from Dave Bedwood and Ben Silcox’s yet-to-be-named venture to Studio of Art & Commerce, which may not be purely digital but creatively has its heart online.

It’s set to be a tough year, though, so we’re likely to see some agencies battle for survival. In this tough environment, pretenders are unlikely to see billings grow from serious creative or digital pitches. As artificial intelligence makes its presence felt and apps lose out to bots, the digital market is no place for charlatans and chancers.

The skills needed to be relevant must be deep and very smart. Very few agencies have the depth of talent to thrive in 2017. It will be a Darwinian year.

Chris Clarke is the chief creative officer, international, at DigitasLBi.

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