CES 2019: What these three global agency CEOs think about reinventing the agency model

CEOs of Wunderman Thompson, OMD and Publicis Media Americas debate how technology has impacted the brand-agency relationship and what they're doing to become adaptive to client needs

It’s the ability to tie activities and emerging technology utilisation to a brand’s business ambition, rather than standalone media metrics, that’s key to agencies building stronger trust with clients.

That’s the view of OMD global CEO, John Osborn, who joined a panel of global agency chief executives at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to discuss the reinvention of the agency model in the face of rapid technological change. Jones was joined by Wunderman Thompson global CEO, Mel Edwards, and Publicis Media Americas CEO, Tim Jones.

“We live in a world where there’s a real breakdown in trust, and it’s incumbent on all of us collectively to bring that back,” Osborn told attendees. One major way OMD is looking to overcome this and cut through the complexity of the media and adtech landscape is via business-led measurement.

“Measurement varies by client, but it’s so important for us to make sure we’re in lockstep with what success looks like before we press go,” Osborn said. “If we go down the rabbit hole without that, it’s incredibly ineffective and inefficient to try and restart and go back.

“Trust is job one and making sure we deliver and disproportionate economic return on the investment. And knowing what it looks like before pressing go is key to achieving that.”

Edwards agreed the days of just measuring a campaign’s success are long gone. “It’s about how to answer a business problem or challenge, what are the KPIs and what does success look like around that problem,” she said.

Business-oriented measurement is equally important when sizing up emerging technologies in the media and marketing chain that aren’t always third-party verified, Jones said. To ensure Publicis Media is keeping up with tech trends, the agency maintains a ‘future lab’ in each major office, with dedicated staff, and the team invites clients in for immersion days in specialist technology areas.

“We’re tying back to hard business metrics rather than proxies through media measurement or marketing KPIs,” Jones explained. “A lot of new products are also about test-and-learn, and trialling first. We have a number of clients luckily who want to be experimental. Realising results then comes back to performance and if it’s delivering for their brand.”

Publicis Media also maintains an innovation group focused on harnessing new technology capability. “For us, it rolls back to our view of the business we’re in – serving clients,” Jones said of its approach.

“The business we think we’re in is helping clients make better decisions faster. To get value, radical collaboration and prototyping to directly lean in to technology is key.

“There’s no shortage of platforms and partners willing to ideate with you earlier on in the process. Because the cost threshold is so much lower today, it’s also easier for us to not just go in theoretically, but to create something tangible clients can not only wrap their heads around, but also their hands. This makes it more relatable and buyable because of the impact it’ll have on their businesses.”

Over at Wunderman Thompson, a hub-and-spoke approach helps employees tap into specialist skills across markets and regions. “We also use incubation hubs, and work through how to utilise those new technologies,” Edwards explained.  

“Then it’s up to us as individuals to train people, and put in R&D investment back into our business to ensure we’re not just talking about it, but that everyone can gain an understanding of how to utilise technology for clients.”

One key question Wunderman asks when it starts working with a client is how ‘up’ they are for making mistakes, Edwards added. “That’s about how brave you want to be. You have to look at how to take some risks, but there’s a balance. To a certain degree it’s about being brave too.”

The willingness of agencies to embrace new technology and adapt to individual client business needs also prompted Jones to emphasise how much agencies are already reinventing their models.

“It’s utter bullshit agencies are not changing enough; we are changing every day,” he argued. “There are two reasons. One is because we serve a multiplicity of clients and they all need different things, so we need to be bespoke partner to them.

“Secondly, agencies are accountable to execution. Any number of companies can tell clients what to do, give over a strategy or plan. What we have to do is then deliver it, and against business metrics. We are held accountable.

“Those people working in agencies are change agents – you are making it happen and we should be proud of it. That’s where the trust is. Great relationships have trust and with that we can be the best partner for our clients.”

It’s also this adaptability all three agency leaders stressed in response to questions about the rising trend of brands insourcing skills previously sourced from third-party agency partners.

“It’s right clients want to bring things closer to the business and what traditionally sat with agencies,” Edwards commented. In response, ‘Wunderman inside’ has been launched in order to work on a bespoke basis with each client.

“How we get things to market in a speedier way is key. Delivering services onsite enables clients to get to market faster,” she continued. “It varies by client rather than region, but some want that agency environment, and to work with teams in our offices. But overall, it’s becoming more a hybrid team we’re creating on and offsite.”  

For Osborn, the rise of insourcing puts the impetus on agencies to prove out the value of what they deliver. And whether it be in-house, embedded or flexible models, it’s up to agencies like Publicis to be partners to clients and respect their wishes, Jones said.

“But don’t want to just meekly adhere – we have to give advice against that,” he said. “It’s complicated out there. Agencies exist to manage complexity and scale. To take programmatic in-house, for example, you’re creating hundreds of T&Cs with partners you never had to concern yourself with before. It all needs management. It’s not glamourous work, and agencies are already set up to do that.”

What elements are critical for brands to take in-house differs widely, too. “Sometimes it’s concern over controlling data, sometimes it’s strategy, managing contracts, or analytics,” Jones said. “It’s not the same story every time, so it’s a consulting conversation to understand what you want to insource and how we can help.”

But even as they stressed the ongoing relevancy of their organisations, all three executives admitted agencies need to constantly evolve and articulate their position in order to stay relevant.

“We have to get on the front foot as well, not the back foot. There’s a lot of mealy mouthing and the word ‘media’ has a lot of connotations to it. We’re in the marketing and solutions providing business,” Osborn said. “If done right, it’s a huge benefit to clients. Whether it’s talent, or being able to look just outside the fish bowl to see things more objectively – there are benefits come along with that.

“We need to be more proactive about explaining those benefits to clients. I find this back corner of the room quiet and whispering distracting. Enough, let’s get on the front foot.”

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