2021: A year of opportunity

CEO Victoria Fox shares AAR’s perspective on what the coming year has in store for our agency partners

The disruption to society caused by COVID-19 has been immense, and none of us are naïve enough to believe we have even seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the economic fallout. However, at AAR we are feeling quietly optimistic about the coming months. Long overdue, seismic changes have been driven throughout the marketing industry over the past year which now present real opportunities for 2021.

Change brings opportunity

From a new business perspective, we expect a busy year even if there’s a slow start to Q1.  Customer expectations have fundamentally shifted and the industry can’t wait for the rollout of the vaccine to catch up. New capabilities are needed to compete, new marketing models need to be implemented and this will drive a need to ensure brands have the right partners, be they existing or new ones.

What are clients looking for?

We thought it would be useful to give you our perspective on the shift that clients are needing to make and why, to help you position your offering in this context. For a long while there has been a trend for in-housing and questions over what this means for agencies. In-housing is an important part of the marketing ecosystem and this trend won’t be reversing anytime soon. There is no doubt the system has shifted, but there is a real opportunity for agencies that are truly listening and adapting. It’s about adjusting your positioning to reflect the changing market dynamic.

Agencies, consultancies and marketing departments were all staring into this challenge before COVID-19 hit and, if anything, it took away any excuses. It forced change and the transformation that we have witnessed in 2020 is nothing short of miraculous. Changes planned for the next five years were delivered in five months.

Sticking with the theme of five, here are five areas of change that we are hearing and seeing at AAR.

1) Clear brand purpose is a guiding light, especially in times of change

COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted customer needs. It has been evident that businesses that are crystal clear on why they exist and who they are built to serve (customers, employees, community) have found it easier to navigate through this crisis. Tough decisions become simpler choices behind which everyone is aligned. At AAR, in the last six months we have seen a stream of clients looking for brand strategy partners to define their ‘North star’ purpose.

2) Customer experience has the power to make or break your brand

The goal for marketers is to drive growth; a goal made easier if there’s a clear brand purpose. Their job is to make their brand the brand of choice by making it more desirable and easier to buy.

The experience economy is no longer just an emerging trend. Customers are holding brands to high expectations, and sub-par CX can have significant real-world consequences in lost market share and business. Good CX can be the difference between thriving and not just surviving.

Leveraging the brand creatively through customer experience is the key to better connecting with customers. Clients are looking for partners that are thinking holistically about the experience, and communications that are part of this experience.

3) Customer centricity requires a fundamental shift in marketing operations

An exceptional end to end customer experience means putting the customer right at the heart of the organisation.

In all of our discussions with CMO’s, there’s a universal theme about their approach to marketing: full funnel, data driven and customer centric. The language used may be slightly different, but the meaning is universally the same. Internally, brands can no longer be organised into the neat marketing swim-lanes of brand-building, direct response, PR, digital and so on, each with separate budgets and different objectives. Successful and ambitious brands have recognised that the customer doesn’t care or even think about where they are on the journey, just that they are the same person who should be recognised and treated accordingly.

And data is the lubricant, the liquid engineering if you like, that when used correctly, can help transform a customer into a loyal customer, and beyond that, an advocate and a fan.

It’s for this reason we’re seeing every business reassess, review and reorganise its marketing operations and ways of working, looking at people, process and platforms. We refer to this as the Marketing Ecosystem (sum of internal and external capabilities) with capabilities covering people, process, platforms and performance.

There are no silver bullets. Clients are hungry for learnings and outside-in perspectives. No one wants to be a guinea pig. Almost magpie-like, we are seeing clients adopt and adapt learnings from across the industry. As an agency, you should share insights, learnings and examples with all of your clients. You’ll be thanked for this shared learning.

In a customer centric operation, silos are the enemy. As an agency, even if you are being bought into the mix for a specialism, remember that you are joining an ecosystem. Helping your clients glue all the parts of the ecosystem together is vital. Think beyond your remit, be generous and collaborative with other elements of the system. You are all only as good as the sum of the parts.

4) Clients are searching for efficiencies and effectiveness

In-housing is part of the answer for both efficiency and effectiveness. Better connecting with customers by responding at the speed of culture and driving down costs. This trend will continue. Embrace it. Agencies have a critical role to play in bringing creative thinking to the table but not in the same way as in the past. It is not about outsourcing this creative thinking in totality. Agencies need to play a team game, helping to elevate creativity, even if they are not executing it.

5) Connecting to modern Britain

Diversity, inclusion and sustainability are not ‘nice to have’s’. We will see customers demanding more from brands with which they choose to engage, and rightly so. Clients are acutely aware and will increasingly demand their agencies drench them in rich, real time customer insight. They will want to see evidence that ideas are going to really resonate with the audiences they are targeting. It is a business imperative that will only become more central to decision making when selecting an agency partner.

Change is everywhere and will continue into 2021. One of the biggest questions that clients will ask themselves when making a partner selection is whether this agency is set up to weather the storm and adapt to the continued disruptions that are inevitable in 2021 and beyond. Keep demonstrating that you are ahead of the curve by having your finger firmly placed on the pulse of the customer. After all, they are what is driving this change.