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Four Traits Shaping the Marketing Agency of the Future

Aubrey Beck

At the Digiday Agency Summit in Phoenix this week, agency executives from across the country came together to share our challenges as well as the internal agency processes and cultural shifts that are proving successful for our individual agencies.

What follows are the four areas that dominated our conversations and within these areas lie the four tell-tale traits of marketing agencies with an eye to the future.



Collaboration is the New Competition

The summit was marked by a spirit of collaboration, rather than one of competition—an attitudinal shift that Wendy Clark, veteran Coca-Cola SVP and current CEO of DDB North America, spoke about at length.

She highlighted all the ways in which the nature of ‘speed’ is affecting our clients—from supply chain efficiencies and faster fulfillment time expectations, to the immediacy and reactive nature of social media—and how this pressure to move faster and become more agile, is rolling down to marketing agencies.

"Faster, better, cheaper!"

This mantra of "faster, better, cheaper" has come to encapsulate the pressure being placed on marketing agencies from both clients and the agency world as a collective. In what can often feel like a race to the bottom, the idea that marketing agencies should be working faster, cheaper, and better seems to have sprung up right alongside the surge in marketing automation solutions.

The phrase ‘marketing automation’ has (in part thanks to excellent marketing by  marketing tech folks) created the
(false) perception that marketing can now be done automatically by “magical” cloud-based marketing automation platforms like HubSpot and Marketo (disclaimer: Salted Stone is a HubSpot Partner Agency.)

Miconceptions and false perceptions aside, Clark noted that, "Speed is key in being able to serve our clients effectively."

Her point highlights why working efficiently is so critical to agency success. This note on efficiency rolled up into the notion of needing to do more to work collaboratively. She expressed that competition has been taken too far and that to succeed in today’s world, we must stand shoulder to shoulder in a spirit of collaboration.

How We Treat People Matters

This shift requires that marketing agencies and business organizations open conversations around how we treat people, our leadership principles, and how we work together—because these are the things that hold the key to collaboration in the era of speed and transparency.

Clark advocated for the idea that people should be encouraged to bring their full self to work, and that everyone needs to be encouraged to be their best self and not the second best version of someone else.


In a white paper published by Deloitte University, the argument for a new model of inclusion is offered—one that works to uncover talent in the workplace.

The authors advise that while it’s “been many years since the diversity and inclusion revolution swept the corporate world… most inclusion efforts have not explicitly and rigorously addressed the pressure to conform that prevents individuals from realizing that ideal.”

And in order for this reality to take shape in our workplaces, Clark advises that it is essential for leadership to exhibit traits of bravery and curiosity.

So while gender is being openly tackled in the industry and on the whole by the country, Clark noted that as an industry we’re falling behind in race, sexual orientation, and age diversity within our agencies. Which is why at DDB, their entire workforce will have participated in unconscious bias training by year’s end.

After all, it’s often the unknown unknowns (what we don’t know we don’t know) that prove to be our most dangerous blind spots.

Squeezed on Margin

Beyond the discussion of people, a main topic of conversation over the two and a half days revolved around the idea of diminishing profit margins. And with the rally cry being, "We want it faster, better, cheaper!

Agencies, from behemoth to boutique, are getting squeezed on margin these days.

Which is why many of us continually seek new ways to work more efficiently, while also applying resources to ensuring that client perceptions are aligned with the real value that the agency provides.

Before main sessions began on Monday and Tuesday mornings, agency representatives were invited to participate in town hall style discussions where we shared ideas related to tweaking internal structures.

I was able to share how we here at Salted Stone have adopted the practice of working through new client ideas and requests that fall outside of the overarching strategy with the use of sprints (taken from agile development methodology).

It's a workflow shift that has helped our team stay focused on hitting vital marketing strategy deliverables while more accurately prioritizing and balancing the inevitable last-minute, “speed” related client requests that come in.

14633525_10155435095514897_2086878028926438881_o.jpg*photo credit: Digiday Events

The town hall discussions also delved into areas related to best practices for merging working styles across multiple generations, improving workflow outcomes, and communicating to clients the true value that our individual, unique teams bring to a scope of work.

This topic of the real or true value of our work, is where the conversation around taking the effort to build our own brands, as agencies, began to come into focus.

Identity Crisis

As awareness around the need for great content and technically-accurate integrated campaigns grows, the definition of what an agency is has become more fluid. As a result, our industry is facing a sort of identity crisis.

Agencies today do not fall in line with the Mad Men stereotype whereby agency execs are seen as the first, last and only word on how a brand represents itself.

Instead, clients now expect a true collaborative effort and partnership between their in-house teams and the agencies they sign on with. Beyond that, consulting companies are growing into agencies and brands are building out their own in-house agencies. Not to mention, agency employees are being recruited (or actively seeking) to go in-house with their biggest client accounts.

And in what has become more commonplace than not, larger brands are choosing to move away from the traditional agency of record model to a more project-based model that involves the synchronization of workflow among multiple agencies.

This trend has emerged as organizations attempt to secure a pool of highly-specialized knowledge and diverse work experience across all creative and technical marketing realms.


Interagency Collaboration: A Case Study

As chief innovation officer at GroupM, Cary Tilds leads the identification of consumer and media technologies and the assessment of how these technologies change the digital media platform strategy.

In her presentation, Tilds shared the technical aspects surrounding her work leading digital media operations for Team Detroit. In this role, she worked to merge six creative agencies to create a single digital media strategy agency on behalf of the Ford Motor Company.

She highlighted the challenges of collaboration—weaving six agency cultures, the emergence of new mobile phone technology, the economic recession—that came with heading up one of the first ever social media led marketing campaigns (in 2010) to launch the Ford Fiesta here in the United States.

[Team Detroit’s work on this campaign was outlined in a Harvard Business School case study.]

Branding the Branders

The fluidity required to collaborate on a scale of this measure has become the new normal, but with it has come the understanding that measuring and communicating your team’s unique value is vital to the success and longevity of your agency.

Beyond actually having a unique value, agency leadership must also commit to expressing that value outwardly through investments into your own brand. We’re often so busy crafting and producing the brands of our clients, that we don’t make the time to build and nurture our own agency’s brand.

In the current environment, marked by speed demands and reduced budgets, the investment in building our own brands—in order to effectively express our true value—is crucial.

Michael Duda, Managing Partner at Bullish—an accelerator agency designed for businesses living early in an S-curve (clever, right?)—spoke to the idea that keeping margins healthy and fair for agencies is in large part a function of focusing on your outcomes, not the outputs.

From this point of view, the focus shifts from How many hours did you spend? to one more concerned with What value are you creating?


Marketing Agencies of the Future

The four main takeaways from my time at the Summit were that marketing agencies need to prioritize and keep an eye toward: 

  • embracing a collaborative work environment
  • making conscious moves towards diversifying the makeup of our teams
  • implementing efficient work processes that allow room for creativity in an era of speed
  • investing in our own brands in order to better communicate the true value of our work

While we’ve covered quite a bit in this post (and congratulations are truly in order if you’ve read to this point), it’s only the tip of the iceberg for what was covered at the Digiday Agency Summit this year. For quick soundbites from the conference, search #DigidayDAS on Twitter.

P.S. For more futuristic marketing agency talk, download a copy of the Influencer Marketing for Modern PR ebook. It runs through the mechanics behind influencer marketing and how to leverage the new bottom-up media model to your advantage.

Have a comment or question about the views expressed here? Or want to run through ideas for your own brand? Schedule a call with us. We'd love to talk with you..
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