5 Things Agencies Need to Do (But Won’t)

It occurred to me that the future has fallen way behind schedule.

Ten years ago (or so), there were some great predictions being made. Actually, they were more than predictions: they were statements of facts-to-be – statements that had an air of inevitability surrounding them, compelling the advertising marketplace forward toward a time of perfectly-targeted, richly-interactive, high-speed, low-cost communications that engaged as they motivated, built long-term relationships, and extended brands deep into consumer lives. It was going to be great and it was going to be driven by a new vanguard of advertisers who embraced digital channels with even greater vigor than our predecessors did television and radio. Declarations were made and anyone who disagreed had missed the train, were protecting their profits, or – most damning of all – simply didn’t get it.

I admit it. I was a part of it. I’ve been there and I’m still here, and as much as I hate to admit this, I have heard the same bold declarations almost continuously through my career so far, and I don’t see any signs of them abating. It all leads me to a single conclusion that it’s time we faced up to:

Interactive marketers: we are stuck.

We’re stuck between believing that we’re on the cusp of a bright new world and the ability to make that world happen. We are stuck chasing down amazing new technologies, only to attack them with the same tired tactics. And, mostly, we are stuck in agency and business models that don’t adapt.

We need a new plan. Many years ago, I used to produce an annual piece that I called “the agenda.” It was a set of to-do items for marketers and their agencies to follow to best meet the current set of new challenges. It’s been a while since I produced one of these, but the time seems right. I offer you my own list of things that interactive agencies need to do, right now.

Number 1: Change the Definition of “Media”

For too long we have defined media as a product – it is a thing that we buy. But as so many people have come to embrace a framework of bought, owned, and earned media, we realize that it is so much more, if for no other reason that you can’t buy earned media (at least not the kind that really matters). I propose that instead we define media as any “time, place or environment in which the consumer and the brand meet.” This is not just words and semantics. I believe that if we talk in this way, we’ll have a new way of thinking about media that finally lines up with the way consumers view media: a chance to consider their own desires and opportunities.

Number 2: Stitch Together Data

I hesitate to write this one, because I understand that the reason why many agencies and marketers have not done such a good job with integrating disparate data sources into a single vision is economic. Taking data from search, display, and social – let alone offline data – takes a lot of effort. But even if this is done at the most superficial level, such as lining up television ratings and search data, we start to find amazing bits of insight that are hiding in plain sight.

Number 3: Get Creative (Again)

We’ve gotten sucked in lately by platforms. Facebook and Twitter are the new exciting kids on the block, but search ads and good old network buys are another. Video overlays (the text kind) are yet one more. They are all platforms where we can quickly post up ads that are most text and offers without a lot of creative power. This sort of advertising definitely has its place and often drives a serious amount of clicks, traffic, and revenue. But we have to not get stuck down in this space, assuming that this is all we need to do to be successful. Build a platform of well-performing simple media, but take the cushion of revenue being generated and leap from there with great creative work that will not just channel demand, but actually create it.

Number 4: Experiment and Innovate

Innovation is the siren song of the digital world. With rapid development platforms, languages, and technologies, we all feel like we could create the next big thing in our spare time. We all have big ideas residing in our brains and on our white boards. What has held us back, however, has never really been the investment in development, but rather the risk associated with innovation – we don’t know if our big idea will take off or even be competitive. But, similar to the call to get creative, the marketplace needs a consistent supply of new thinking and agencies remain in the best position to push out ideas, even if they aren’t wholly baked yet, simply because agencies always live in between the world of real business needs and consumer desires. That friction-filled space needs to consistently be mined for sparks of the new, which should come with at least some measure of quality, simply because they come from real-life, not technology labs.

Number 5: Don’t Stop Believing

I know: a connection to the Internet is no longer relegated to the big boxy computer down in the den. It’s no longer just about surfing sites and (slow) downloads of files. Just like you, my Internet connection flows through my home like a breeze on a summer day, touching multiple devices and people and situations. I do, however, often experience amazing moments of free fall, when I’m watching a movie streaming from Netflix on my television and remember suddenly that this is “the Internet.” With this spread of technology, especially toward video, audio, and other (as we used to say) lean-back experiences, there’s a tendency to think less interactively and more like agencies of old – those ones we were supposed to be disrupting. Yes, we can start to make videos and commercials. We can even make them longer if we want.

But putting a click at the end of an ad is not the vision that we were working towards; a vision that I still believe in and think you should as well. So, please: the one thing that I really do wish that you do is to not lose sight of that idea and that vision. OK – it’s coming slower than expected. But it’s still right.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.