Over There: The Agency View

Part one of this series is here; part two is here.

My exploration of how U.K. brand marketers approach marketing tech in the U.K. had already revealed some fundamental differences with the U.S. space. I’d been told that U.K. marketers have less budgets, less access to the relevant skill-sets, and more concerns about data privacy and GDPR. This prompted a focus on customer retention rather than acquisition, and an interest in tools which help manage the data of existing customers.

Consistent with this, home-grown U.K. marketing tech companies — less pressured by investors — were also more concerned with cementing deep relationships with a few brands than building market share as fast as possible. Some of the best U.K. offerings were looking to the U.S. to expand and grow, while U.S. entrants in  the U.K. market risked churn as they sought to sell one-size-fits-all solutions to as many brands as possible.

But I was still missing a big part of the picture. Many marketing tech vendors go to market, in part at least, through relationships with agencies. Modern agencies (blurring into consultancies) help sell tech solutions by packaging them as part of a broader digital transformation strategy for their brand clients. Increasingly, the larger agencies have expertise in specific solutions, and can support deployment and roll-out.

The view from an agency

One such agency, combining implementation of digital solutions with strategic and creative services, is (or was) Olson 1to1, and they’ve been doing it for a global market. Just last week, Olson 1to1, along with Olson Engage, Olson Digital, and some other teams, were re-grouped and re-branded by owner ICF as ICF Next. Before the holidays, I’d spoken with Andrew Kelly, an Olson 1to1 VP who had just moved from the States to London, and Roisin Monnington, partner at The Future Customer (then associated with Olson 1to1, and now part of ICF Next).

The Future Customer, Monnington explained, is “the main spearhead of Olson’s UK presence” and is “mostly strategic, using the U.S. [part of Olson] for technology and delivery.” One big difference from the U.S. is that a “huge part of our work is less RFP driven. The UK market is small enough to be network-driven, and we find that we can lead from a strategic deliverable into a technology solution without having to go through a procurement process.” (This is consistent, of course, with the view that U.K. marketing tech companies tend to work closely with a few selected brands.) “Also, the nature of the U.K. and European business market is that the brands are generally smaller,” Monnington continued. “They’re often looking for more of a creative solution to achieve a goal than an all-encompassing end-to-end agency and technology play. “

There’s less demand, then, for comprehensive strategy to technology offerings; but aren’t there still some big home-grown U/K. agencies/consultancies? “The end-to-end is created by a WPP. They are collecting types of agencies to bring them together to create that full offering, but I wouldn’t say that among our clients there is somebody who has it all. Often for historic reasons, there are areas of business need are serviced by different agencies, independent of whether or not those agencies happen to be owned by a wider group.” 

Is it the case that agencies in the U.K. are still closer to the traditional creative model than the U.S. agencies that are heavily involved in tech? “What we’re seeing,” said Kelly, “is the traditional creative/ad agencies, which offer big ideas, shifting to accommodate for the more data-driven, longer-tail opportunities — with, for example, much heavier analytical insight into customer behaviors. Publicists are rapidly trying to make that shift.”

Monnington agreed. “From the boutique consultancy to traditional and large advertising agencies, everyone knows they need to move into the data space, and they’ve been trying  for the last five or six years. But In terms of the technology play, there’s really very little understanding within the big traditional agencies of the value that can be added by understanding those larger marketing automation systems.”

At the same time, where brands are themselves building significant marketing tech stacks, they’re looking to U.S. vendors. “That is absolutely ubiquitous,” said Monnington. “I don’t have a large client who’s not going through some infrastructural change in that area, and I have not heard of anyone using anything but larger solutions. Salesforce and Adobe are easily the top two, then SAP Hybris. People are secure with, for example, the relationship that Accenture has with Adobe, they’re just being safe, and they’re not using anything home-grown as far as I can see.”

A prediction? “What will end up happening is that the U.K. [solutions] will be able to grow in specific and very focused subject-matter areas, and then they will be adopted into the Adobe suite.” (Adobe here standing, I believe, for any of the bigger U.S. marketing suites.)

Monnington also confirmed what I’d heard from Jordan Adams and Jonny Rose about the heavy emphasis, among U.K. brands, on customer data. “From the US perspective,” said Kelly, “from managers to VPs there has always been an understanding of the power of data and customer insights, and what that can do from a marketing and retention perspective. You might have a loyalty or CRM layer, you might have a customer insights layer, but they have traditionally been siloed. Things are starting to change, and coalesce more than they were. Marketers in the States are now very comfortable speaking to a granular level of data, although they’re certainly not data scientists.”

In the U.K., said Monnington, “it differs case by case, but broadly the same is true. One of the struggles people are having is creating a marketing team which combines the data, the digital, and the comms together.”

The shift in skills

All of which brings me to a final point made by Jordan Adams of MarTech Tracker. The background to building a U.K. marketing team with the requisite tech and data skills reflects a power-shift from IT and the CIO to marketing and the CMO. “That is undoubtedly happening in the U.K.,” Adams insists, from the experience of qualifying more than two thousand leads per month for marketing tech companies. “Out of those, roughly 80 percent now hold a marketing function title. From the U.K. point of view, senior marketing decision-makers are influencing the tech they’re buying.”

This is a recent change too. “Twelve months ago, our database only had four people who held the title ‘director of marketing technology.” That number is now 207. The culture of hiring is changing; there’s a sense of ‘How are we going to make all this work?” Adams is seeing recruitment agencies appear which specialize in hiring marketing tech skill-sets. “We’re starting to see consultancies and agencies in the U.K. offer education in how to onboard and use these solutions.” Perhaps unjustly, Adams sees less of this with U.S. vendors: “They tend to have imlementation and roll-out programs, but they don’t tend to help with how to get your people to buy in.”

Marketing tech companies in the U.K., then, suddenly have “someone to aim at.” When someone is head of marketing tech, “they stand out like a beacon.” And these changes can surely only accelerate adoption and understanding of marketing tech in the U.K..

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