Technology has played – and continues to play – a massive role in the evolution of agencies and their work for clients, but it isn’t without its challenges. B&T goes one-on-one with Mark Gretton, director of CHE Proximity’s innovation consultancy, The Brightsmiths, to talk about all this and more…
How has technology changed agencies? Is it changing them for the better?
Technology is disrupting every part of the agency model. It’s changing production processes, making it easier and cheaper to produce high quality content assets. This has implications on our ability to personalise content at ever more granular levels. It’s allowing us to aggregate data in new ways to stitch together identity profiles on unknown prospects, to build look-a-like audiences, enrich customer profiles to inform cross-sell, retention and up-sell strategies. It adds intelligence to the way we can optimise our messaging strategies through machine learning. It allows us to report on and monitor performance, sentiment and gather insights more quickly and easily.
Personally, I think this makes the opportunities to deliver effective communications more exciting than ever. However, it also makes doing great work harder. Having to balance the inputs of data, technology, experience planning and creative disciplines increases the need for collaboration and trust amongst team members.
Being part of the CHE Proximity network and wider Clemenger Group, I think we’re incredibly lucky to be able to problem solve alongside these subject matter experts to bring to bear the best that this technology can offer. However, I can understand why some people might look back nostalgically to the ‘simpler days’ of the big TV spot. Those were fun in a different way though.
What does The Brightsmiths tech stack look like? How is it different from other agencies?
The Brightsmiths take an agnostic view towards technology. Our role is to consult to clients on the right tools for them, not to prescribe based on our preferred vendor, as I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach here. Lots of clients will have highly established systems and platforms and the opportunity cost of moving to a ‘best in breed’ new system just might not stack up versus trying to make more of what they have. Most of the time there are low-hanging fruit opportunities in their existing tech stacks that clients just haven’t been able to get to for either capability or capacity reasons. Our job is to help them work through these opportunities, prioritise them and address the technical implementation challenges to bring them to reality.
What are clients’ expectations of The Brightsmiths regarding the use of technology in campaigns these days?
Most of the time we find that we’re the ones pushing our clients and setting the expectation, not the other way around. Most businesses aren’t set up well to manage continuous technology transformation. They are resourced based on established programs of work that are repeated and recycled (i.e. “We always do a big acquisition push in January”). Our job is to challenge those established patterns and to identify whether there is a better way. So, rather than a big campaign push at a certain time of the year, maybe we could build a predictive model that could identify at a single prospect/device level whether someone was exhibiting signs of being ‘in-market’ based on their website browsing or CRM behaviour.
Increasingly clients are interested in specific skillsets though in credential presentations (i.e. Adobe Marketing Cloud, Salesforce, Oracle), which is why we also run a huge enablement program across The Brightsmiths and CHE Proximity to ensure that we have deep understanding across all key platforms. This is a sizable investment, but one that we have already seen strong payback from.
What’s the biggest challenge agencies face when it comes to technology? What are agencies doing wrong when it comes to adopting technology?
I think the biggest challenge agencies face is a resistance to change. The bigger you are, the harder it is to change. Leaders also often don’t have the vision or knowledge of technology to oversee the change. Processes don’t just exist in PowerPoint decks – they are engrained in people that work in organisations. Organisations resist change, as it is uncomfortable and unsettling for staff, and big agencies, like many clients, aren’t set up to manage continuous transformation programs on themselves. Again, in being effectively a start-up business, with the backing of a much larger business and thoroughly enlightened CEO in the shape of Chris Howatson behind us, we get to work with a clean slate in terms of the services we provide what we can offer to businesses and the structure of our business model.
In terms of technology adoption, the hard part in being a services business is that if you’re being truly innovative with tech, then it doesn’t always work. When that’s your own money, that’s ok, but when a client is paying you for an output, it’s hard to sell in an unknown outcome and can be reputation damaging if a big investment doesn’t pay off. To address this, I think agencies need to take a much more liberated approach to their financial measures of success and remuneration structures. Using ‘staff ratio to revenue’ models for calibrating performance doesn’t encourage risk-taking. Setting project fees based on specific deliverables doesn’t encourage innovation. Bringing the holding companies and finance teams on the journey is a big part in the story here too.
What’s the biggest tech opportunity for agencies?
The biggest tech opportunity for agencies is in experience orchestration for me. We have never had better capability to control which messages specific audience segments or individuals see. This is incredibly powerful and hugely confronting for businesses that have based their content philosophies and strategy processes around serving mass audiences as
one. To deliver experience orchestration, however, requires agencies to really understand data, targeting, experience planning, media, and the technology systems and how to weave these together, which is incredibly challenging, particularly with all the holding company walls drawn up between the P&Ls of ad agencies, digital/tech agencies and media agencies.
What should agencies look for in a tech partner?
We work in some capacity with most of the big tech companies. Having access to their technical people makes a big difference. Many tech companies only have sales people on-shore in Australia and New Zealand, which isn’t helpful for problem solving and innovating with their platforms. Having a clear strategy and rules of engagement for how their deal with partners is another big one. There tends to be some pretty big differences in how tech companies operate, with some openly providing competing ‘consulting’ services to those that agencies offer or providing preferential treatment to their favourite ‘re-sellers’. We’re pretty transparent with our tech partners that we will support opportunities for their technology with our clients, only if it makes commercial sense for our clients’ businesses and we don’t take any kick-backs from them. Our goal is to do the most effective work we can for our clients. Luckily that often creates great case studies for our tech partners too, so it’s a win-win.
Do you think adland’s increasing obsession with technology is at the expense of customer service?
I think that there’s a massive dearth of talent in people that truly understand the latest advertising and marketing technology systems. At the same time, I think there are a lot of charlatan technology salesmen out there. This combination means that clients often suffer from poor advice in this space. When I started The Brightsmiths, it was partly because I wanted to shine a light on what the potential was for technology to influence performance, but also to stop people falling in to some of the common traps out there.
Do you think it’s getting to the point where technology is stifling creativity in adland?
Agencies that haven’t adapted are suffering. They’re getting less time to write briefs, less time to write scripts, and smaller budgets, which leads to smaller or stagnant salaries and lower-quality talent. However, if you realise that these industry trends are inevitable and redesign your agency model around this new state, then the opportunity to harness data to drive ever more personalised narratives that flex around moods, buying states and demographics is incredibly exciting. I personally think that we’re about to see the dawn of the next era of advertising. I feel like the work that The Brightsmiths completed with CHE Proximity for Velocity was a taster of that, but I think we’ve only just started to unlock the potential there. It’s going to be awesome.
Some people in the industry reckon that if the merger of adtech and martech enables more marketers to execute their own media buys, that would essentially make media agencies redundant. What’s your take on that?
Some businesses will try and run their own in-house trading desks. Some will do a really good job, but most won’t. To do a good job, you do need a level of scale and depth of talent which most Australian businesses won’t be able to secure. Having run in-house martech resources, the other challenge is that whilst you get to know your own commercial dynamics very well, you just don’t have the same access to subject matter experts as an agency structure would. As such, whilst you build strong t-shaped people, you can quickly become myopic and stifled in terms of your innovation. By working with an external partner who works across lots of different businesses, there is a greater capability to cross-pollinate thinking and ideas.
That said, I also think there are a lot of issues with the calibre of media staff out there. In the race to the bottom in the CPM game, I believe that many media agencies have not been investing in the quality of their people enough. Personally, I think an in-housed team with external consulting support is a more likely scenario than a fully in-housed team in the future. I do think that media agencies will need to transform themselves to service this though. Instead of hiring very lowly-paid juniors who are in it just for the free go-karting days and cinema tickets, they will need to hire much more seasoned strategic thinkers who can genuinely help clients navigate the ever-evolving technology ecosystems.