Agency trends from across the pond

Reflections from the 2014 New York AdForum Summit

You might think the idea of spending five days in back to back presentations from agencies, including breakfast and evening engagements, is your idea of hell but that’s exactly what I was doing last week in New York at the annual AdForum Global Summit.

Intermediaries and pitch consultants from across the world gather every October in New York to meet a range of communications agencies for updates on their latest thinking, trends and, of course, to see the work.

What follows are five key themes picked up from over 30 meetings and presentations.

1. It’s no longer about digital: it’s about technology

The relentless pursuit by the established agencies to put digital at the core, and 21st century agencies offering digital within its DNA, appears to be over. Any agency that makes a point of its digital credentials now looks off the pace as consumers and brands are already fully engaged in relationships that are powered by technology.

Two themes to support this were offered up by Peter Kim, Chief Digital Officer for Cheil.

First, today everything is shoppable with full convergence and interplay between off-line and on-line as retail channels.

And secondly, we have become a sharing economy where brands such as Uber and Airbnb are the natural way of the world rather than a niche fad.

Between clients and their agencies, it’s the application of technology that’s a real driving force for customer engagement.

2. Content is the playground where agencies are spending a lot more time

Content is not a new concept. Advertising agencies have been producing it for years, just in a relatively small number of formats compared to the plethora of opportunities available today. As have PR agencies and, more recently, those specialising exclusively in creating content.

But the time has come for agencies, consultancies and publishers to give more specific definition and focus to this all encompassing term. It’s not dissimilar to the idea of integration that was all the rage a few years ago. Once all agencies raised their hand to being integrated, the smarter ones recognised there were different forms of integration that addressed differing brand needs. These agencies quickly stood out from the crowd of hand-raisers, all of whom claimed to do integration.

Tweets, vines, email, blogs, 30” spots, 60” spots, even 90” spots, long copy advertising, YouTube, AFP’s (advertiser funded programming) and customer magazines are all content opportunities that fulfill different roles in brand marketing. The best agencies demonstrate what client challenges these opportunities are best suited to address and, therefore, what aspects of content they are best placed to create and curate on behalf of their clients.

Worthy of a mention is the role that media agencies are taking on behalf of their clients in the debate around content and OMD can claim, with some justification, to be the most creative of the media networks, according to The Gunn Report rankings.

3. Evolving ways of working and the AOR 2.0

A newly launched agency can set fresh new ways of working that match the client’s (and the agency’s own) expectations for delivering the best the agency has to offer. Launched in 2013, Work & Co. is one such example of a new digital product design and development company that espouses an agile process based on specific measures of success, collaborative design, rapid prototyping and continuous testing and improvement. It requires senior client involvement with the benefit being a speed to market that measures in weeks rather than months.

But the AOR (agency of record) client agency relationship is not redundant. It is, however, evolving through force of necessity. An always on/always paid for model may no longer suit a clients’ needs of their AOR.

Witness the increasing presence of a de-coupled production model (where the UK appears to be in a more advanced state than the USA) and the beginnings of creative origination not simply adaptation by companies such as TAG and Hogarth.

Speed of response is becoming increasingly important as successful brands need to work at the speed of culture.

Arthur Sardoun, the newly appointed global CEO of Publicis, shared how the agency is evolving in its ambition to become the preferred creative partner of their clients’ digital transformation.

One example in North America is the Publicis Newsdesk, a strategic hub that connects all aspects of a clients marketing; PR, media, search, community management, social strategists, traditional creative talent and client representation. The Newsdesk concept is to be extended into other markets.

Another is the soon to be launched Publics Drugstore in Tech City that will connect large brands with tech start-ups. Not the first example of this evolved way of working but real evidence of a heritage agency doing something different.

4. Great storytelling continues to have a big role to play in building brands

Storytelling has never been out of fashion and some agencies have an expertise in telling a brand’s story particularly well through a specific medium. Two rather impressive exponents of different ways agencies can tell their clients brand stories came from Story Worldwide and DDB.

Story Worldwide help brands tell their stories through entertainment, information and engagement, guiding audiences through non-linear journeys that can encompass multiple platforms and channels. You could look at it as content, but there’s a lot more to it than this one superficial word suggests. (See point 2)

Mark O’Brien, President of North America DDB Worldwide, shared the agency’s view that creativity is the most powerful force in business and emotion the most powerful force in life. Combining these two thoughts, he then demonstrated the agency’s skill in storytelling through a reel of advertising commercials from across the network that, as a body of work from one agency, was unsurpassed all week. The naysayers may criticise that it’s only TV advertising, which may be so, but what DDB shared with us was work of the highest standard that our industry has to offer.

TV work from Lowe and Partners, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and The Martin Agency also offered a timely reminder that 30” advertising still has a central role to play in creating a brand’s personality and telling its story.

5. All change at the top

Six of the major advertising networks have appointed new global CEO’s within the last two years, four of them in 2014. Harris Diamond at McCann in November 2012, Arthur Sardoun at Publicis in October 2013, Andrew Bennett at Havas and Troy Ruhanen at TBWA, both earlier this year, with Gustavo Martinez taking up the role at J Walter Thompson at the end of 2014 and Robert Senior assuming responsibility at Saatchi & Saatchi in January 2015.

What does this mean?

Inevitably with new blood come new ideas, change and an injection of momentum. Some of this has already been put in place (e.g. Publicis Drugstore in London) and no doubt more will quickly follow, undoubtedly once Robert Senior (not known for maintaining the status quo) is officially in place at Saatchi’s next January.

It was encouraging to hear the heritage agencies in optimistic and buoyant mood and creating some great work at a time when clients’ expectations of them continue to grow, an ever expanding new breed of agencies continue to challenge and change is a constant.

So what conclusions can be drawn from the week?

Just like brand businesses, the communications industry is grappling with the challenges and opportunities that all pervasive technology is demanding. Why? Because the consumer demands it from brands to which they are going to commit their attention, time and money.

As ever, there’s no single right answer or approach and new ways of working are constantly developing, with Hollywood now appearing to have as much influence as Madison Avenue (together with a large dose of Silicon Valley).

Success will come to those agencies that are the best at what they do, continue to add value, demonstrate a return to their clients business and deliver a quality of creativity to their brands that only agencies can.