The future role of agencies

Advertising is a broad church these days. If you didn’t already know this, a quick glance at the listings for AdWeek Europe ahead of Easter made it clear.

Salma Hayek on creativity or the latest best practice in programmatic buying? A lesson in branding from Katie Price, or advice on acting like a start-up?

That’s a diverse itinerary. Advertising is changing, all right. At times it seems like it’s in the middle of an identity crisis.

But if our present is already as diverse as that, what chance do we stand of preparing for the future?

That was the question posed by the Future Foundation and the IPA at their sessions. When it comes to future gazing, this partnership has form. Almost ten years ago they collaborated on a report looking at the future of agencies, imagining what world we would inhabit in 2015.

Plenty of what they said has come to pass. Agencies move with greater speed and agility. They provide a broader range of skillsets to match the changing needs of their clients. They are more central than ever to clients’ brands and more involved with the path to purchase.

Now the two bodies are collaborating on a sequel. In a report that will be published at Cannes in June they ask – what will agencies do in 2025?

So far the work has focused on brands. How might they adapt as consumer behaviour continues to change? Will they have to create market share using only functional brilliance? Or will they play a more central, emotional role in people’s lives? How ‘empowered’ will consumers be? And how will technology facilitate these new relationships?

The AdWeek presentation acted as a mid-report debrief. It used these questions to highlight four possible scenarios, defining four new brand-consumer relationships that will influence the work that agencies do. (see image below).


You can download the full presentation here and learn more about the four scenarios.

I’d been lucky enough to get a preview of the research in January, at a workshop hosted by the IPA for the IPA Strategy Group. There we considered the implications for each scenario, developing agency models that mapped on to the four scenarios highlighted by the report.

At AdWeek another workshop followed the presentation. We worked through the new models and debated their implications on major aspects of the business – remuneration, talent, collaboration and creativity.

Of course the scenarios, and therefore the agency models, won’t be discrete. Brands flit between these scenarios depending on their focus. Agencies work with clients who face many different challenges and opportunities. They perform different roles for those clients depending on the challenges they face.

And so the more we spoke at the workshop about the future, the more it seemed we were really talking about the present. We might not know the skills we will need in ten year’s time, but it became clear that tomorrow’s diversity is today’s challenge. Thinking about 2025 reminds us that what is fundamental now will only become more pronounced as the trend to diversity intensifies.

For example:

  • More touch points and more formats make a coherent presence harder to establish and maintain. As technology enables brands to promote, distribute and even price themselves differently for different people, the ability to distil a clear brand purpose and defined strategy will become essential.

  • As brands manifest themselves in more ways and more places, creativity will be applied to a broader definition of the customer experience.

  • As consumers take more control over the content that penetrates their world, ideas that stand out or spread will be at a premium.

  • As routes to market become more diverse, we must focus as much on business outcomes as we do on crafting executions within specific channels.

  • As businesses become more complicated and fast-paced, the external perspective that agencies provide will become more valuable. That view should be informed by and applied through deeper relationships across more parts of the business.
So: purpose, creativity, ideas, a focus on business outcomes and partnership. Perhaps the new isn’t so shocking after all.

A moment in the main presentation encapsulated this. Someone asked from the floor: what new digital skills will we need in the future?

Microsoft said ‘intuition.’ Google said ‘smart creative’. The IPA rep said ‘curiosity.’ All were agreed – we will need people who can interpret, simplify and apply. People who can extract insight from data, people who can join the dots.

In the future, the skills we will need are the same we need now. Only more so.