The Changing Face of Agencies

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The digital world is about more than just tech platforms
The digital world is about more than just tech platforms

The buzzword of 2017 in this space is shaping up to be "experience." Adobe tells its customers that they're in the "experience business." Oracle — and others — talk up the "customer experience." 

Everyone agrees that the experience must be seamless and delightful, of course, and there's a growing consensus that it goes beyond marketing to encompass the entire customer life-cycle, from the top of the funnel, through conversion, to service, retention, and loyalty. There's pressure on brands to deliver this kind of quality, over-arching experience: That means pressure on agencies too.

As has been said elsewhere here, an agency proffer focused on delivering a "big idea" plus creative execution isn't enough in this technically complex, multi-channel, always-on world, where the customer is in the driving seat. The best agencies are consultancies too, and they're increasingly driving not only campaigns, but business realignment and technology acquisition for their most digitally savvy clients.

Whether we call them agencies, consultancies, platforms, or solutions, here's how some well-known players in the space are joining up the dots.

The 360 degree view is suddenly real

Isobar US is an established full-service digital agency with a global footprint. I chatted at Adobe Summit 2017 with VP Navneet Virk about the the interplay between agency and consultancy services.

"Technically, we're a digital agency," he says, "but we started as a consulting agency and brought that approach. We work on-site with clients a lot, and on long-term projects." Up to a few years ago, he explains, there wasn't as much need to think about all the many touch-points which constitute the customer experience. A brand could be data-driven, but the data was essentially driving "static design" elements, like the brand home page. 

Now, with data available from every conceivable source, and technology allowing engagement at much greater scale, "what we are focusing on is cross-channel customer relationship management. It's important to deliver a better experience in every channel."

Like Stites, he emphasizes the changing brand-customer relationship. "Consumers have so many choices now that loyalty is dead, except for some exceptional brands." Competition is at the level of service and experience, because: "It's never been easier to switch brands."

And again, competing isn't just about adopting the right technology, although Virk acknowledges that's part of it. He talks about re-building the digital eco-system to that it's not just about clicks and conversions. As an example, he offers Isobar's strategic partnership with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, a long-established private company which had been beset by inertia when it came to digital presence.

The brand had always traded on in-person customer service, symbolized by a literal handshake to greet renters. The challenge was to reproduce this personal touch digitally and at scale, by bringing the personal touch to all devices and channels: Namely, 22 domains in 25 languages, and fully redesigned mobile apps ("Bold, bright images," says Virk, "then we thought about the content."

Isobar is platform agnostic too: Selecting a tech stack goes alongside evaluating a client's processes. "All of a sudden, says Virk, "the 360 degree view has become real."

Leaving 360 degrees behind

Accenture is a veteran entity, with roots in the Andersen Consulting division of the Arthur Andersen accountacy giant. It's been Accenture since 2001, and offers strategic, consulting, and technology services to a global customer base. But if you want to locate the cutting edge of what Accenture is doing to transform clients into "experience businesses," it's worth looking at the operation called Accenture Interactive, itself a part of Accenture Digital.

To clarify what all that means, I spoke with global head of Accenture Interactive, Glen Hartman at Adobe Summit 2017. I asked him first about the "experience business" concept.

"We've been talking about the same thing at Accenture Interactive for a long time," he says, and in much broader terms than just marketing. "Any way you can engage the customer, from sales to loyalty; it's about [helping brands] provide the best experiences on the planet for their customers."

Hartman acknowledges that these demands are creating a new breed of agency; the kind of agency which can go beyond designing campaigns to helping brands with change management, redesigning the organization around customer engagement. 

Where Accenture itself has focused on working with the CIO on large-scale technology projects, Accenture Interactive addresses the CMO, Hartman explains, but with the credibility of Accenture behind it. And it steps beyond the traditional agency role, proposing operational models for digital transformation, and promoting the skill-sets true transformation requires.

"It's about helping companies to reverse engineer around the customer in a different way," Hartman offers. The technology is important, but it has to be "optimized through the lens of the customer." Given the sky-high expectations of consumers in this mobile, always-connected environment, that means a "move beyond personalization and into what it means to be relevant in the moment."

Inevitably, that implies getting familiar with actionable, real-time data — difficult, Hartman would argue, unless an organization is willing to shed rigidity and redesign itself as a "living organism." He dismissed the so-called "360 degree view of the customer as an "old school, CRM way of looking at things. So much data occurs in the moment: Capture the moment."

Know why a customer is doing something in the moment they're doing it. It's a steep demand, and it implies deep change which doesn't stop with acquiring the latest new solution.

The brand experience

Merkle, currently billing itself as a "performance marketing agency" has been around longer than Accenture. With foundations in customer data and CRM, it's now talking a lot about the customer relationship and the customer experience. Who better to ask about this evolution than Ted Stites, SVP of customer experience?

For Stites, "marketing to people, not cookies and personas, and executing in digital channels" is part of the Merkle DNA. The agency's core, he says, is "people-based marketing." But he agrees that marketing is about more than selling: "Whether it's interacting with the brand in call centers, in retail centers, marketing is about the experience with the brand." 

He doesn't see this approach as innovative. On the contrary. He cites the adage "'What's old is new.'" Indeed, he says that we're seeing "a lot of the traditional principles of direct marketing now being leveraged differently." For example, audience modeling and segmentation are nothing new: The question now is how to do it faster and at scale.

Again, this requires organizational adaptability as well as the right tech stack. It's a waste, Stites explains, to integrate innovative technology if a brand can't execute organizationally.  Which brings us to the new Merkle Innovation Cloud which allows clients to test the integration of their data with major marketing suites before committing to investment and deployment.

Merkle has centers of excellence devoted to key platforms. For example, as an Adobe Global Alliance partner, it has specialist expertise in Adobe Analytics, Campaign and Experience Manager. "We also have a broad working knowledge of the eco-system," says Stites.

In an increasingly "noisy" market, Stites explains, customers are more attached to each other than to any one brand. Winning loyalty isn't about selling the best mouse-trap any more. "You have to be part of the customer's life in an engaging way which is not intuitive [to many brands]. If I can meet you in the way you to be met, and engage better than the competition, I will win." 

What's clear is that accelerating towards that goal isn't reducible to a well-executed campaign, an enhanced tech stack, or a few new skill-sets. It requires deep organizational transformation, which some agencies are positioning themselves to enable.

Isobar and Merkle are both part of the Dentsu Aegis network. Adobe covered DMN's expenses to attend Summit 2017.

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