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Automation as the Key to Modern Agency Growth

  |  June 13, 2012   |  Comments

Can agencies shed manual (and clerical) processes to become more strategic?

For as long as they can remember, agency media teams have depended on Excel as the default tool for almost everything related to managing a digital campaign's. Granted, ad servers fulfill a role as execution and reporting systems, and finance systems ensure publishers get paid and clients get billed, however Excel has been the tool that ties all this together. Excel documents are in the agency DNA, yet limitations of this manual state constrain the profitable growth of the agency's digital discipline.

Excel does not scale, and it certainly does not entail a "workflow solution." Excel doesn't fulfill the basic workflow requirement of allowing collaboration and knowledge sharing across and between teams. When agencies depend on Excel as their workflow tool, in essence they are running lots of individual business units centered around these individual Excel documents. Often when working with agency clients, we see historical examples of media plans iterating as FinalMediaPlan.xls, then FinalFinalMediaPlan, then FinalFinalFinalMediaPlan, ad infinitum.

As media plans become ever more intricate, responding to an increasingly fragmented marketplace, and digital continues to increase as share of media spend, we see increasing operational inefficiency as a result of legacy manual processes bridged by Excel. The dependency on Excel and other Microsoft Office programs further reduces already tight margins in digital media because of their inherent inefficiency. Agencies manage countless critical documents through a campaign's lifecycle, and these often vary by client account, agency unit, or even individual, and all are manually operated.

Ironically, the data-driven management and rising automation of online advertising has not yet been replicated within the proto-typical media agency's toolset. More often than not, inefficient manual processes are the norm. Our "data and insight driven" industry is using medieval technology to manage its daily processes. Insight, accuracy, and quality are often sacrificed for the sake of expediency, and this is crippling the media agency's growth prospects.

Yet, we see agencies keep on with the toil and accept this cost of doing business – failing to grow profitably as a result. The agency world needs a modern solution.

The Growth Problem

It seems a widely accepted truth that the agency growth opportunity largely resides in digital. However, despite the rise of digital spends, agencies servicing digital are not growing as they should. Process inefficiency is the single greatest impediment to agency growth. Inefficiencies are depriving agencies of scaling profitably.

What Manual Habits Hinder Agencies?

Microsoft Excel, Powerpoint, Word, and Outlook make up the default tool kit, and to date, a lack of focus on operational efficiency inside media agencies is characterized by several realities. One, formal project and process management is a rare and infrequently employed skill set found in any media agency across the globe. Agency processes rarely evolve by design, but rather from one supervisor teaching the next team how to do things their way, while also catering to the client's latest request.

Secondly, manual processes and document creation dominate digital workflow. For example our firm's research into agencies' "current state" prior to engaging on agency business transformation projects reveal consistent insights from over 40 engagements across the globe:

A typical media planner or media agency spends over 70 percent of their time and resources working on a campaign, manually transferring data between different sources e.g., Excel, PowerPoint, and email and under 30 percent investigate past performance, analyzing and optimizing. The work is overwhelmingly clerical versus strategic.

Agency employees themselves perceive the inefficiency with their manual processes and typically estimate improved processes could deliver, on average, a 28 percent time saving. In major markets like the U.K and U.S., this figure is nearer 40 percent. Yet, more often than not, there is no change; the institution makes no move to improve the situation that is reported by their teams.

Further examining reality inside the agency, there is a lack of standardization of processes. Processes are not only largely manual, but centered around either client groups or individuals (and not the agency). We see cumbersome manual execution throughout the workflow:

76 percent of briefs are sent as an email, versus through an automated system. So, there is no way to track individuals - and key detail falls out of sight.

Briefings are all over the map, with up to seven different methods of briefing being used; up to six different methods within a single agency; up to five different methods within a single account.

On average, 60 percent of planners receive information for the production schedule from each publisher on a campaign-by-campaign basis, with 24 percent sourcing themselves from the publisher's website, for each campaign. On average, this equates to 17 different sources of this data for every campaign.

How Do Day-to-Day Realities Impact the Agency Business?

While these statistics are alarming and we can imagine the day-to-day friction these facts create, we must consider the larger stakes and impact of these realities.

Inconsistent processes and decentralized data result in:

-Loss of management control: The absence of technology deprives agency management of control and visibility on business critical data sets.

-Human error: Lost information and detail at every stage of media research, planning, buying, and campaign execution leading to data inconsistencies.

-Operational inefficiency: through the endless repetition of tasks.

-Reduced margins: A lack of standardization prevents auditing, management from establishing benchmarks, and seeking continuous improvement. The operation of the planning teams can be compared with a black box where only the input and the outputs are visible. In a highly price competitive industry, those who do not seek to address these issues will compromise profitability.

What Is the Solution?

To resolve the current state, at a high level, there must be a commitment and a focus on standardization of processes within the organization.

It is a given with any push to bring efficiency to a process, that first effort must be made to standardize behavior, before working towards efficiency. Implementing workflow solutions presents the prime opportunity to standardize these processes, while delivering the automation of document creation, and integration with legacy systems such as ad servers and finance systems.

Given the technology root of the media we serve, the agency of today and certainly of tomorrow must adopt a technology core. This extends to all workflow systems. Imagine a system that is:

-Able to automate document creation and formerly manual processes, linking updates across all key documents.

-Independent: technology that is not built by a company that would seek to derive value from the agency's data; a company that has vested interests in the sell-side of the industry in particular.

-Configurable: The ability of the technology to be configured to meet the agency (or client's) specific requirements. Meeting 95 percent of requirements is not enough. It should service requirements specific to the local marketplace and integrate with any incumbent technology, particularly finance and ad-serving platforms, and be adaptable to solutions in the future.

-Effective for change management: Strong agency leadership should be supported by a system that can drive the transition from present state to future state.

-Global: Most importantly when agencies' clients are global and often transacting across multiple markets, the agencies' solutions must provide global standardization capabilities.

Agencies carry on within awkward workflows, despite their own day-to-day awareness of the issues caused by the persistent manual state. We believe that technology can stop this cycle. Next in the series, we will look at our findings specifically as they relate to data systems and agency teams and talent, and what must be done to gain operating comfort and excellence within the more technology-supported agency.



Julian Baring

Julian Baring is executive vice president, North America, of Facilitate Digital, a publically listed Australian technology firm, providing software and services to digital media agencies and advertisers. These include a best-in class digital campaign workflow solution called Symphony that is revolutionizing the online advertising value-chain, by integrating the media-agency, creative agency, and publishers into one system.

Julian has been with Facilitate Digital since 2007 when he joined to open the London office and build the European business. He was previously a partner at Portobello Ventures, a start-up incubator. Prior to that Julian worked as part of founding team building and launching Platefood, an enterprise software search technology venture that was acquired by FAST in 2006. Julian also was one of the first employees at Vizzavi a pan-European multi-access portal joint-venture between Vodafone and Vivendi. He started his career working at Saatchi & Saatchi and then BBDO in New York and has an MBA from Oxford University.

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