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Agencies? Consultancies? They’re Making CX Real

The second part of a two-part look at how new-look agencies are trying to do it all, from building the stack to creating, running, and optimizing campaigns. Part one is here.

The journey to people-based marketing

I hate the word agnostic, because it makes you sound like you don’t care. We care tremendously.” Justin Stayrook, SVP, marketing platforms, at Merkle, was explaining how the agency makes considered recommendations to clients about filling the gaps in their marketing stacks. Stayrook prefers the phrase “unbiased opinions.”

Adobe is the premier partner,” he said.  “They rank highly in every category, but in any situation with a client there are going to be conflicting views. That’s the value of our platform architecture practice.” And with any client, there’s legacy software to be addressed. “Maybe the endpoint is moving to a single vendor, but that’s a journey; so we have a really strong, skilled team that can work on that progression for clients. Clients usually do things step-wise, because there are no green fields,” he explained. “And you can’t stop marketing for six months, implement everything, then turn everything back on.”

A client might have Adobe Analytics or Target in place, but not be using them efficiently. Perhaps they think they need Audience Manager. Merkle can demonstrate how these components integrate and function prior to implementation using the Merkle Innovation Cloud platform. After all: “It’s a leap of faith for marketers to buy all that technology and then just hope it all comes  together, whereas we can show the incremental value.”

The initial iteration of the Innovation Cloud was launched last summer, with the motto “making it real.” The platform provided a space for clients to experiment with activating different configurations of their stack, with what Stayrook calls the “special sauce” of Merkle data added. The 2.0 version of the Cloud, announced at Adobe Summit last month. “With the 2.0,” said Stayrook, “we really just started to focus on the newer things Adobe has been bringing to market, like Sensei. We’ve been able to focus on smart tags, and bringing in more personalized imagery and things like that. One of the advantages Adobe has over the market is that they’ve been experience and creative focused for so long.” At Summit, Adobe had demonstrated Sensei’s proficiency in tagging, recovering, and activating content (especially graphic content) at scale.

But the Innovation Cloud isn’t just a glorified sandbox. “One aspect is just doing a really strong demonstration for clients of the power of the tools,” Stayrook said. “But it’s also a real, functioning instance, so it’s a jumping off point for us. We can take those instances and scale up to get into a real enterprise situation. But the fundamentals of what we built persist in what we do.” In other words, configuring a set of solutions in the Innovation Cloud is a big step towards real-world implementation. After all, “the holy grail is starting with that strategy component, understanding what they need to put in place, and putting some architecture round that.”

Innovation Cloud is also a source of reassurance. “We try to get through the implementation phase as quickly as we can, because that’s where there’s usually the most anxiety with clients.” While pure systems integrators go no further, for Merkle the value of their approach manifests at the next step: “Where we’re actually helping the client operate, helping them run campaigns, helping them optimize campaigns. That’s where you get to Merkle’s people-based marketing approach.”

For Stayrook, “Merkle is unique, in that we have a heritage of activating customer data for our clients. That’s taken many shapes and forms over the years, from traditional  direct marketing to digital. What I’m really excited about this year is AI becoming real. Marketers had to have a crash course in digital. Over the next five years, they’re going to have to have a crash course in data. The companies that can address that the best, with really user-friendly ways to do it, are going to succeed on the software and services end.”

Experience: Beyond “fluffy”

Donna Tuths, SVP and global head of Cognizant Interactive, exemplifies — through her career and her present responsibilities and interests — the way in which data and technology are now at the heart of marketing strategies. “I’ve probably spent as much time on the management consulting and technology side as I have on the agency side, so I’ve seen this from the inside out. We have seen a shift, fundamentally associated with the impact of technology. When I take a look at what that has wrought, over the last five to six years, I see a strong shift from marketing to experience. These are different things.” 

For Tuths, marketing is “what I say” — branding through messages and logos. Experience is about “who I am as a company.” And it’s more than just a buzzword, although “I’ve been told it’s ‘fluffy,'” she laughed. Tuths was shocked recently when she went back to the classic Harvard Business Review article on the experience economy to find that it dated from 1998, rather than, say, 2005. That was when she was raising young children; back then, you bought a cake for a birthday party. Since then, she says, we’ve become accustomed to buying the whole party as an experience — and the cake comes with it.

“I have tremendous heart for the advertising industry,” she said (after all, she has WPP, Wunderman, and Ogilvy & Mather on her resume, as well as Accenture Interactive, where she founded the global content practice). “But our traditional agencies weren’t able to make the shift, see the trends, and invest in technology and new channels like social which require very different skills. I think this has put the advertising industry on its back heels.”

What’s more, Tuths differentiates Cognizant from what she calls “more traditional agencies.” For example, Accenture and Deloitte “have DNA from accountancy, because that’s where they came from. We were founded only 25 years ago. We were born at the advent of all of this change we’re seeing, and we bring something very different to this space.” She describes Cognizant not as a consultancy or agency, but as a “third actor.” With video already dominating the online space, and AR/VR just around the corner, “we are really focused on the newest things.” Clients are asking: “How can I operationalize these new experiences I have to create, in all the places I have to create them?” 

With the largest companies, the answer is often an in-house agency. What does that mean for Cognizant? “The role that we have there is being part of that new, bespoke agency a lot of our clients are creating.” Whereas enterprises want to bring brand voice in-house, they don’t necessarily want to bring everything that’s necessary to operationalize it globally in-house too. “They don’t want to own studios around the world,” for example. 

Has there also been a shift from campaign-focused work to longer-term alignment with brands on image, voice, and the proffer of brand affinity? “There’s still the AOR work, which a lot of us did, although there’s a lot more data and technology informing that. But where the growth is in this huge amount of additional work that is required to bring experiences to life.” This means a heavy emphasis for many clients on mobile platforms, and on social media.

In fact, the importance of social media, said Tuths, is one of the reasons brands are bringing the voice back in-house. “This is not about, ‘I’m going to have a commercial relationship with [an agency], and I’m going to pay you to tell me who I am.’ This is “We need to live and breathe who we are. Every interaction with our company needs to feel this way.’ I don’t think this is fluffy. I don’t think people are making it up. It’s very real.”

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