The role of media agencies in 2020

As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on what’s been, but also to look forward to seeing what 2020 may hold in store for the ad industry. As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, but in its place, new opportunities are born and with it, fresh hope for a new year full of positive change and progression, not just in advertising but for the world as a whole. But, before I make my case as the next spokesperson for Green Peace, let’s stick closer to home and reflect on what is in store for the coming year.

A tired observation, but still a truism, is that digital marketing never stands still. Or should I say ‘marketing’ never stands still. And nor should it. Evolution is healthy and change is essential in advertising. The technological advances within advertising and the way in which audiences engage with media and brands mean that as an industry and as marketing professionals, we cannot afford to stand still and get left behind. Much like our own agency principle of media & beyond, advertising really has moved on and become 24/7. But that does not mean that all advertising should be, or that we need to be in the consumers’ conscious every second of every day, or in every other Instagram post. What can we learn from 2019, and how can we make our world a better one next year?

What I hope to see more of in 2020 is that advertisers, and media specifically, move back to planning for their audiences with care and attention. To consider a people-first approach to marcomms strategies and to remember that planning is an art and not just an automated Facebook or Google algorithm. Media agencies should be at the forefront of strategic insight and audience intelligence, to help inform the marketing strategy and creative direction. But why is this art being lost and are some media agencies missing the mark?

As agencies from different specialist disciplines compete to offer the same services to the same clients, they risk forgetting their core disciplines and why they exist in the first place. Media want to offer creative, creative want to offer media and PR want to offer it all. Gone are the days it seems of agencies working together as partners for the greater good of the client.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching an episode of Planet Earth, with the vultures fighting with the hyenas and lions for the best bits of the carcass. For the purpose of any doubt, this analogy pertains to the agencies and the client’s budgets. Regardless, clients are getting tired of agency squabbling and this seemingly counter-productive race to the bottom. Although there has been a desire and trend for clients to seek a full-service shop, there aren’t many such agencies out there, and even fewer who can do every discipline expertly. I understand that you can’t stifle ambition or the desire for growth, but the clients will get the best from us if we deliver what we’re best at.

But what’s caused this shift in agency behaviour? The truth is tech has to a degree but so has the clients’ positioning. With marketing automation on the rise, agencies have started to fear the dreaded word “in-housing”. With automation, the seemingly easy nature of setting up omnichannel marketing activity through self-serve ad platforms, CRMs, DMPs and social media, clients are rethinking the agency model and considering whether they can run their marketing activity more cost-effectively and efficiently themselves.

It’s no secret that building a team of specialists isn’t easy, and it can cost a brand a fair investment before it begins delivering benefits. But if agencies aren’t keeping up with the technological trends or demonstrating true added value, who can blame advertisers for giving it a go themselves? It is further evident, especially in this last year, that SAAS companies are trying to make the agency less relevant. Where once media agency and supplier relationships were sacred, now the gloves are off, and the ad tech providers are going direct to clients, thus cutting out the middle person.

There’s a stack of tech companies out there, all lining up to convince you that their social listening is unique, or their native ad platform has more reach than Google, or that their CRM system provides a 360 end-to-end customer view.

Clients are getting an unfiltered, direct no-holds-barred sales patter, and without custodians and mediators of the landscape, there’s a risk that misguided decisions will be made, man hours lost, and valuable budget wasted. And that’s not to sound patronising towards marketers on the client side. In an exciting, yet slightly overwhelming world of ad tech brands need their agencies more than ever. The need for media professionals with a wealth of insight and knowledge across multiple sectors and verticals to help navigate a landscape full of complexity has never been more apparent.

Next year, media agencies especially must consider some, if not all, of the following if they want to demonstrate value in the fast-changing landscape:

  • Know it all, without needing to offer it all – media agencies in 2020 need to have complete tech fluency, being able to offer advice and guidance to clients on all consumer end-to-end touch points. And I don’t mean offering services like web build or CRM. They need specialists who understand how all these elements work together to offer a full omni-channel strategy that goes beyond just media planning and buying.
  • Don’t just be a supplier, be a true partner – becoming one of the team, offering shared working space, providing more training and more support. If clients persist on in-housing certain services, the agency should be guiding them through it, becoming consultants, and ensuring clients choose the right staff and best tech solutions.
  • Get back to basics and core values – remind clients that media is more than just a point and click solution. That meticulous planning takes expertise, skill and the right tools for the job. Media agencies will have research, planning and insight expertise that can ensure your ad pounds are spent reaching the right people.
  • Automated creative should be part of the solution, not a long-term replacement – media agencies should offer creative solutions without offering campaign solutions. Automation is the now and future, and we strive to educate clients and help save their budget on creative costs. But we must strike a balance and remember there is still a place for emotive brand-led campaigns that inspire and influence, and that creative agencies are still the custodians of this practice. Media can do its part by providing the fuel and insight that shapes the creative messaging. Partnership is key for 2020.
  • Click the habit; put real people above vanity metrics – many brands still need to reach audiences emotionally, and evoke more than just short-term reactions. Meaningless likes and clicks that don’t lead to any tangible outcomes are outdated. We need to look at the bigger picture. Reach, scalability and how online can work with offline to offer real, meaningful experiences will be key. Using the power of mobile to influence real-world behavior, such as visits to a store or show home will be more powerful than a five-second visit to your website.

There are so many pressing issues facing our industry, especially the role of the media agency. From transparency to fraud, in-housing to overall relevancy in an industry that is fast moving towards automation and AI-driven media solutions. It sounds bleak doesn’t it. But don’t fear, there is room for optimism. If media agencies and the wider advertising community consider some of the key issues identified, then my prediction is that media agencies will still be a necessary and essential part of advertisers’ supplier chain for many years to come.

I’ll check back in at the half year point, to see how we’re all getting on. Hopefully Boris will finally have put Brexit in the oven, the economy will be in positive growth and we’ll all be getting out the Union Jack (including the Scottish Saltire) and waving on our sporting heroes as they fight for gold medals at the Japanese Olympics.

Have a fabulous Christmas and a very Happy New Year.