Last year, a centenary celebration known as the Festival of British Advertising honored the best of British creativity over the past 100 years. The accompanying exhibition and events shined a spotlight on iconic adverts that both influenced and reflected the culture—from the drumming gorilla to the Smash Martians, who famously laughed at primitive earthlings who laboriously peel, boil, and smash potatoes instead of simply opening a packet of Cadbury Smash.
The commercial was born of a classic brand-agency partnership between Cadbury and BMP in 1974, and the robot characters have staged multiple comebacks, twice in the 90s and once in the mid-2000s. It was recently voted the UK’s #1 “most memorable” pre-internet ad.
While the chortling robot creatures have enjoyed remarkable staying power, the agency-brand relationship that produced it has not. (See “It’s the End of Agencies as We Know It,” in AdWeek earlier this year.) In the Mad Men-esque advertising heyday and for decades thereafter, agencies were an indispensable link between brands and their customers, providing insights brands could get no other way. They generated consumer research not available to the brands. They had the relationships to arrange the right kinds of media buys. And they provided the technical know-how a typical manufacturer or service business might lack.
Thanks to digital transformation, brands can now gather copious amounts of customer data all by themselves. They can talk to real, live customers on social media and other apps. They have direct access to media companies of all shapes and sizes. They can even record, edit, and broadcast videos without outside help.
The role of the agency has shifted significantly, but many marketers are letting old modes of thinking dominate their approach to brand-agency collaboration. Here are three tips for navigating this strange new world.
1. GET CLEAR ABOUT ROLE AND RELATIONSHIPS
Because brands have more tools and customer data at their fingertips than ever before, they need to be crystal clear about what they need from their agencies – data, analytics, strategy, creative work, a little bit of each? Agencies, for their part, must be specialists instead of generalists and get clear about the value and expertise they offer. More and more, agencies need to narrow in on a specific niche – whether that’s a certain industry, marketing function, or a creative medium.
Unless both sides understand the fundamental purpose of the partnership, no project will go well. If the brand is expecting strategic help, but the agency is trying to follow the brand’s lead, both sides will be left spinning their wheels. Outline a clear vision of what the brand needs from this relationship, and communicate it to everyone involved in executing and approving the work.
2. MAKE PROCESSES TRANSPARENT
Gone are the days when an agency would send five VPs to meet with the brand’s creative director to discuss ideas and present comps, after which both would trickle the take-aways down to their underlings. Hierarchies have flattened, and interaction between brands and agencies has become more egalitarian. Has your approach evolved with the times?
Let’s take an example. We recently engaged the services of a niche agency that specialises in empathetic marketing. The project lead, Heather, invited her principal contact, Brian, to join the project in our internal work management software. Brian was given access to project deadlines and details; a collaboration space; working proofs that included everyone’s feedback; and the names, titles, and contact information of everyone involved. He could ask the writer a question or leave the designer a comment, without having to route them through Heather. Meanwhile, Heather could see all related communication in real time, so she could weigh in as needed. Despite having a couple of third-party contractors involved, the project sailed along as smoothly as any internal initiative.
Hierarchies have flattened and interaction between brands and agencies has become more egalitarian. Has your approach evolved with the times?
How does this relate to you? If you work for a brand, invite key people in the agency to peek behind the corporate curtain. Give them targeted access to your project-tracking system, so they can see how you get work done and how their contribution fits into the whole. If you’re an agency, invite brand stakeholders to view your Trello board, chime in on a Slack channel, weigh in via your digital proofing tool, or receive updates and notifications from your preferred operational system of record. Be as transparent as you can with your processes, so collaboration can happen quickly, easily, and seamlessly. When it’s done right, agency people can actually feel like they are a part of the in-house team.
3. FOCUS ON THE LONG GAME
In today’s digital world, individual campaigns and quick wins won’t cut it. Both agencies and brands must shift their focus to symbiotic partnerships that focus unwaveringly on the customer. Brands need partner agencies that know and understand their customers as well as they do – which requires niche knowledge on the part of the agency and transparency on the part of the brand. They need agencies that can fill in their technological and analytical knowledge gaps in order to make the most of their customer data. And they need ongoing, seamless collaboration with agencies and consultants in order to move at the speed of business today.
SMASH THE PAST
If the Smash Martians were to visit your office, would they point and laugh as you peel, boil, and smash your marketing work as though easier, faster, and more effective options didn’t exist? The old brand-agency model worked fine for them, back in the day. But in this new world of work, roles have changed, transparency is key, and deeper, ongoing relationships are required to navigate the increasingly complex ad-tech landscape. “They are clearly a most primitive people,” the Martians declared in 1974. Don’t let that tagline apply to your work processes today.