Future forward. A ‘new’ agency hypothesis
What will the future creative agency really look like?
Based on my conversations with colleagues across strategy, business transformation, brand development, marketing and digital, this article is my attempt to articulate an alternative approach to agency work that integrates business strategy and creative in a different way. The process I have outlined is by no means perfect and is hopefully a prompt for further discussion, validation and refinement which is a fancy way of saying please let me know if I’m full of BS.
In a recent interview with agency veteran Nick Law, he argues that the old models and structures for agency work are no longer valid and that the agency of the future will be less about selling a big idea and more about capabilities such as augmented reality, voice and the like. I would argue that given the pace of how we work, capabilities will continue to shift and evolve more rapidly. As a result, the agency model of the future must embrace more than just new skill sets and capabilities. The key to long term success is an agency’s ability to combine strategy and creative in a way that embraces real business change and evolution versus merely servicing a client pipeline with an array of capabilities.
To build a new process to accommodate constant change, first, we have to ask ourselves what do really good creative agencies actually do that will stand the test of time? At the most basic level the best agencies build relationships and do work with clients that allow those businesses to function better and be more successful while also being perceived as the best in their respective markets at this cultural moment in time.
I had the fortune of hearing Stephen Gates, Head Design Evangelist at InVision, speak and a big issue he brought up was the notion that embracing dysfunction is the nature of working with human beings in any business environment. We always think another agency is better to work with or for when in reality, no matter the scale, we are constantly managing internal and client dysfunction. The better you can manage internal and external cognitive bias to get things done and ultimately do great work is the creative panacea we are all searching for. It’s a lot like fishing — a perfect combination of environment, timing, knowledge, skill and just plain luck.
So the agency of the future is one that somehow effectively manages human dysfunction, internal and client, within a social, technological and cultural context of perpetual change to produce amazing ideas and work that makes businesses more successful and differentiated. No problem. Sounds great. Easier said than done!
Defining a new criteria for working.
We often hear the standard agency sales pitch that creatives are always looking toward the future while trying to make sense of what will bring client value in the current moment. This is of course common sense. As curious creative people trying to solve problems, we are always speculating about what could be. That said, none of us are clairvoyant no matter what we promise. The future is uncertain so ultimately we have to work with what we know.
The concept of creating agile brands and designing for the future is not a new idea. All agencies want to instill a commitment to giving clients an amazing team of strategic and creative experts that are making every effort to uncover the implications of every brand choice while also giving you a window into new possibilities. It is a rosy picture to be sure and it intentionally side steps real business problems and the pain and suffering required to truly deliver on our idealistic impulses.
In reality embracing fundamental business change and delivering concrete solutions to solve real business problems is hard, complex, and expensive. It encompasses many aspects of an organization that are in constant motion. Historically a company’s Mission, Purpose and Brand have been the anchor in this sea of change giving businesses a north star to guide them but this ideological framing is no longer enough. We need to be able to evaluate problems and provide real potential answers more quickly and to make more informed decisions that can be implemented and tested.
Embracing challenges helps define a better process
Today, what a brand means and how it operates for an organization has evolved radically with the adoption of new technological, cultural, and business processes. With the advent of agile workflows, digital experiences and new innovations like AI and machine learning, brands must solve more complex challenges and must deliver highly adaptable and optimized visual and verbal continuity across every facet of an organization.
Compounding these complexities, collaboration between executives such as the CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO in organizations remains fragmented. By way of example, in Mark Bonchek and Gene Cornfield’s HBR article about the Future of CMOs they write:
“Sometimes the CEO sets the growth agenda but CMOs either aren’t interested or don’t have the skills to go on and reshape the customer experience and drive organizational change. In other scenarios, the CMO is interested, but the CEO doesn’t see their role as being more than running campaigns and generating leads. In this case, the CEO may bring in a new role over marketing.”
This is just one example of how some executive roles are fundamentally shifting and why reducing the level of disconnection between them during the brand development process is so important. As one of our clients always said (and I really hate this phrase) “One Team One Dream” but in a weird way this is a statement about an ideal state of working that never really comes true.
In this day and age, the people at the top in client organizations need to work together more, not less. As businesses get larger and faster, siloing at the C-Suite level just produces more chaos and a counterproductive business culture. To resolve this conflict, agencies and clients must work together to learn how to solve integrated business problems strategically and creatively to create rich stories and experiences that drive tangible growth and business transformation.
Agencies must craft a new kind of creative hypothesis that addresses challenges holistically while forcing the business decision makers to agree on communication solutions that have overlapping value.
Despite the radical and necessary culture shifts happening on our world, agencies still sell the same capabilities as a suite of combined or discrete billable services that are often framed in a mix-n-match fashion.
We can make the assumption that the CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO in most client organizations are not served by most firms as “One Audience” with different lenses on the same business problems. To compound this, at a brand level, creative development is often still perceived as a strategically informed decorative exercise disconnected from taking business problems from their foundational level through to a final visual and verbal solution integrated into the larger context of the client’s business.
There is a huge gap between developing a visual brand system that is a metaphor for a company’s values and actually showing how a brand expression is applied to an actionable use case of a business problem in context. Because the articulation of Values and Purpose in the brand process often remain ungrounded concepts with no real use cases, the traditional strategy and brand exercise becomes time consuming, expensive and not immediately actionable. Designers are eager to ‘design’ but they don’t want to think about the hard stuff that moves the needle for a business because it is not sexy or easy to do. This is especially true for the articulation of specific digital solutions which are still often an afterthought in the brand process. For the client, once they are done with a formal brand process and its eventual on boarding, it’s often too late because the competitive landscape changes so quickly.
For the agency of the future, how do you cut through and provide real value?
If the Impossible Whopper is any indication, we know that people prefer things that look familiar to the things they have seen before but are better for you. If we are to build the new future creative agency it has to look familiar to what clients already know. We know that we also need to scratch the itch of the CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO equally in an overlapping way that others do not while also delivering results more quickly and at a higher level of finish. We must do all of this using a more modular process to build a prototype-driven solutions system that can be applicable to a wide variety of verticals and replicable by small internal teams to keep iteration quick and profitability high.
In the near future, the most successful creative agencies will rapidly, accurately and iteratively prototype cohesive brand and communication systems that are strategically grounded, narratively rich, visually compelling and actionable across overlapping executive, technology and marketing goals.
Redefining how business problems, strategy and creative solutions fundamentally integrate is what will truly separate the current agency model from the agency of the future.
Yeah, I know, the above does not sound like the sexy AI-driven voice activated future that we all are hoping for but by prototyping brand systems in a high fidelity and extremely informed manner, CEO’s, CIOs, CTOs and CMOs can better work together to move from ‘right now’ to the best tomorrow without too many false starts or false promises.
What do we have to do to get to this new era?
Accenture’s acquisition of Droga5 is but one example of the beginning of this new future. For the creative agency, selling ideas and capabilities is being replaced by the necessity to build more cohesive tools and experiences across touch points driven to solve real business problems that produce successful outcomes.
Creative agencies are largely designed in a manner where creative and narrative visualization only bump up against the foundational nature of real business problems. As opposed to creative and brand solutions being either a decorative afterthought or a marketing vehicle, Brand Transformation and Business Transformation must become one.
This is about the point in the online reading experience where people stop reading. Nonetheless, below I have outlined some key tactical and logistical solutions that would allow us to deliver on the promise of our future agency. To reiterate, some of this should look familiar and it should. The agency of the future will be inevitably an evolution of the agency of today.
Force more collaboration
For any new process to work and deliver real value, the C-Suite’s traditional siloed and often dysfunctional way of working must be changed to force active collaboration. The CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO need to be active participants. The key here is that we need to uncover the key areas of friction and difficulty that will improve the business.
Human psychology tells us that people need intrinsic motivation to do something hard. To convince the C-Suite to get in the same room and really work together, we can shorten our time frame to 12–16 weeks to reduce the mental fog and ambivalence caused by a lengthy brand process. While the process will be more rapid producing results more quickly, it must also be economically significant enough for each stakeholder that they feel enough of a cost pinch to invest their own energy into the process to ensure they get the value they expect out of the exercise. If the time frame is too long or the budget too cheap, this leaves the door open to dismiss the exercise and the C-Suite to half pay attention.
Leverage senior talent
Agencies can no longer hand over the boring work to junior staff. We must involve seasoned experts and partners at every phase of our process allowing for our insights and ideas to be of premium quality and fully integrated across strategy and creative. We are creating more of a Navy Seals level brand team so that we can get more value sooner and get further more efficiently in our time frame. By shortening the chain of command and working directly with experts in respective fields we reduce the signal to noise ratio and keep the work more substantive and meaningful.
Research can be expedited through the use of hybrid AI/human platforms like Ask Wonder. I have found Ask Wonder to be an incredible resource allowing us to get up to speed quickly on a client’s perception in the market, larger competitive ecosystem and the undercurrents of an industry.
Consolidate key Interviews
Scheduling interviews with stakeholders can be a huge time suck. To mitigate this, blocking out 2 full day sessions with the most important people allows us to crack the core problems of the CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO and to do this in a way that allows us to compare conversations that transpire within a few hours of each other. To make discussions as valuable as possible, we make these highly focused on the combination and intersection of CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO problems and needs that will drive real business value.
Build engaging online workbooks
For secondary stakeholders, we can shift these from verbal discussions to online workbooks that allow team members to provide insights when they have time to do so. We have found that drafting bespoke interview questions using Typeform has allowed teams to capture more meaningful information. Using features like multiple choice, opinion scales and picture choice within more short and long form questions allows for a nuanced experience that is more fun for stakeholders and more fun for our teams to assemble. When stakeholders have to think for a second and write even just a little bit, they tend to provide more considered insights.
Answer problem statements with high fidelity prototypes
Defining the real overlapping problems that CEOs, CIOs, CTO and CMOs face is the biggest piece to crack. We must understand the existing business environment and where the problems occur and what impact these problems have on users, finances, and ancillary activities. Once we align on the key overlapping problems most important to the CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO, we can work through a solutions set that makes sense and maps to the client’s resources, capabilities and skill sets.
Once we have a clear solutions-set, our cross-disciplinary team can prototype solutions by aligning narrative structures to final form factors that best express the solution being developed. These solutions will encompass any form factor be it physical, digital or experiential needed to solve the business problem. The goal here is to make the believability of the ideas as tangible as possible. If executives and internal client teams believe that the distance between hypothetical and real is short, then ideas are more likely to become reality.
Align, Pressure Test and Implement
Once we have a set of high fidelity prototypes that provide a holistic solution-set, the work can be shared with internal teams to pressure test and gain feedback. This part of the process is designed to gain cross-organizational consensus and to invite key players to the discussion.
To codify, handoff and implement new solutions, the CEO, CIO, CTO and CMO must identify a cross-organizational team along with internal leaders to be the transformation ambassadors that will be charged to make the solutions a reality in the short, medium and long term. This internal client team should be given responsibility, accountability, and freedom in the organization to signal a sea change and to encourage a holistic shift in mindset across communications teams. An online repository of all findings, solutions, and assets is instrumental to provide this team with everything they need to implement solutions.
Thanks for reading
For those that have gotten this far, thanks for sticking with me. Let me know what you think!