Simon Veksner makes a good point in this post written in response to this Ad Week piece that suggests that the future of agency value lies upstream of the communications brief, and in agencies getting more intricately involved in the 'depths' of a client business, becoming 'true general contractors'. Presumably, says Simon, this means going into areas beyond marketing and are we really suggesting that agencies should be getting involved with finance, HR, manufacturing and distribution?:
'We just don't have the skills...Are we really proposing to send a Comms Planner to a finance meeting, to sit alongside the Client's Finance Director, and a couple of guys from Goldman Sachs? Are we really proposing to send a Copywriter to a meeting about building a new factory, alongside the Client's Head of Manufacturing, and a couple of guys from Balfour Beatty?'
His point is that this depreciates what agencies actually can do, and that in an age of commoditisation, the value that marketing and Marcomms can bring is more important than ever.
I agree. When I conducted the research into the Progression of Agency Value a few years ago, I developed a model for agency maturity across four key areas (data, technology, skills and culture) and a framework (above) that referenced the progression of economic value model derived from Gilmore and Pine's The Experience Economy. Applying this model in the context of agency progression over time expressed the shift from delivering services towards staging experiences with or on behalf of the client organisation. And by that I mean the experiences that the client company crafts for its customers.
In the context of what agencies do this increasingly means greater involvement with owned and earned media assets (not just paid), growth in functions and expertise that work at the interface and interaction between the client and their customers (UX, content, experience design, analytics, data). This creates greater value for the client and differentiation for agencies whether it be based around a creative agency originating a great unifying creative idea, or a media agency constructing a media-driven solution that creates a compelling customer experience, or a technology/CRM focused agency that works to create a more joined-up experience for the customer of that client.
This inevitably means that the lines between traditional territories, functions and disciplines blur, which leads to challenges for agencies to define exactly where they should play, where they should partner, and where they should leave alone. But where there is challenge there is also opportunity for agencies in developing a broader offering or new skills (most media agency revenues streams, for example, have increased considerably in number). We're already seeing this with examples of media agencies becoming more adept at content, and looking at how they can drive broader change within companies.
The final stage in our model is where agencies are enabling real change, and guiding transformations for clients. This is arguably where even greater value lies, yet it may be that not every agency ends up here, some perhaps existing very comfortably by focusing on the previous stage. But the kind of thing we're talking about is transformation through creativity (a unifying creative idea that transforms a brand and a business), transformation through product (product and service design), transformation through performance (systems that enable customer needs to shape the business in more agile ways) and so on. The value is inevitably nuanced by sector, the progression nuanced by agency focus.
We undoubtedly have some way to go before we see large numbers and a broad scope of agencies at this stage (many agencies are still getting their heads around what it means for their business to be more involved in the subtleties and complexities of creating exceptional customer experiences for their clients), but I think we're already starting to see examples of where agencies are adding deeper value to clients in this way - for example in the way that performance marketing is (in a few sectors) driving real change through a more focused profit-driven marketing approach.
Yes this does mean a broader footprint within clients, but one that recognises that the progression of agency value can only happen alongside the increasing significance of marketing to the whole organisation. Yes, marketing is undervalued in many organisations, and Simon is right - we should be making it our mission to give the function its rightful place at the top of client companies as a key driver of organisational value.