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The marketing agency revolution

by Andrew Henning, Chief Strategy Officer, 3 March 2017

Read Time: 5 minutes

There is little doubt that AI/machine learning and big data is changing the way we think and ultimately the way that digital marketing will work. Chief Marketing Officers are facing some big decisions. But change isn’t all client-side. This blog is about what it’s like to be leading an agency in this transformative time and what does agency land still have to offer as the machines step in.

Having run Redweb for near on 20 years I am no stranger to change. However, I have a belief that the next few years will be more disruptive and turbulent than many realise. Something reminiscent of the era. The advent of AI, big data, marketing automation followed closely by Mixed Reality is going to shake things up big time. The impact of apps and social will seem just a ripple in the biography of digital agencies when these bad boys strike!

With change comes winners and ultimately losers. Organisations formed off the back of emerging trends or ones that quickly adapt will out run the traditionalists and slow starters. It’s all going to be very exciting!

So, if the coming years (Brexit aside) are going to be the most turbulent and transformative, am I worried? A bit apprehensive maybe, but it’s a challenge and one that as an entrepreneur or maybe just a very competitive person, I relish. Unlike the late 90s, I am significantly better equipped. Not just personally with more business acumen but the fact I have a team of over 120 brilliant staff on my side, able to fast-track the exciting journey.

We also have independence. I often remark how so many of my peers sell out too soon. They take the cash (or shares) at 50 – 60 staff. So, whilst their merger into the big network has little bearing on this story, it does mean that Redweb’s future is one of relative uniqueness. There’s the big network and SI owned players contrasted by a lot of independent smaller boutiques. Look in the middle for larger agile players and they are quite thin on the ground.

Since going to Art College off the back of a Design and Technology ‘A’ Level, I’ve always been embracing the 2 disciplines equally. Luckily I can’t see this changing. I don’t believe that pure tech players will have the skills to create meaningful and native interaction with end-users, even if they have the most powerful tools. The flip side is that marketing and creative agencies are unlikely to have the tech knowledge to fully harness the opportunities.

A photo of Redweb employees engaging in a meeting

As we embrace AI as an agency and we develop our skills around automated marketing platforms, I am encouraged that I already have the nucleus of people needed for success. Yes, we may need to re-align thinking and certain practice as the industry evolves but the mind-sets, attributes and importantly the culture of design and technology is inherent. It’s a good base to start from!

Another change that I foresee in the marketplace will be a greater responsibility and commitment from clients to their agencies. Marketing automation platforms are not projects that you can just dump with a client at go-live. It doesn’t happen with ERP and it won’t happen with EMP.

Hence the agencies that implement these platforms will also be in prime-position to run these platforms. For client-side teams to take the reins they will need up-skilling which presents greater partnership opportunities for the future. The platforms will also allow other work channels, which today are procured separately, to come into the mix. From apps, bots, search, social and content marketing; the need to harvest data and personalise output in a customer centric and not device/channel centric fashion; means they can’t be remote anymore.

In addition, and most importantly, success in the future will be determined by the ‘now’ partnerships that agencies have. We have excellent relations with several vendors who are heavily investing in the machine learning space. I see these partnerships as key to us driving forward. In fact, I’d go as far to say that if you aren’t on board with an ambitious vendor then the train has probably already left the station.

So as I write, we aren’t just talking about AI, we are implementing it for clients, thanks to our partners! They need us to use their technology to the max for known clients and create compelling case studies. So, the more mutual effort the greater advocacy built.

The nature of work is also going to be important in who wins the AI battle of the agencies. For marketing automation to pull in ROI you need a broad target market and clear business goals. No goal is as powerful as making money or saving money, so it is the commerce clients that will spearhead the revolution as they’ve initially the most to gain. Hence, agencies in this space (plug for Redweb again!) should have the most receptive clients.

The near future is exciting (have I said that before?!) and 2017 is about driving forward our knowledge and I see my role as a catalyst, motivator and enabler for this change. I need to make sure we are all thinking and talking the same.

I don’t know if we are ahead or behind the curve. What I do know is we are on the curve which is good enough for now. What we must do is keep learning and making the effort to use the technology. So, bring on the demos, webinars, white papers, articles, discussions, presentations and planning.

In respect of getting your hands dirty then the brilliance of this revolution is that it is all accessible. Cognitive and other cloud services mostly have trial and developer SDKs (Software Development Kit).

Hence over the last year, we have been taking advantage and doing the ground work for the benefit of all. A Haiku Camera on the face of it might be just seen as an interesting and innovative project, but experience of the cognitive services from Microsoft, Google and Clarifai and the way it utilises these services is the real game changer for us. The more Redweb play the more we are prepared.

A photo of the haiku camera

Finally, and as mentioned above, its not just about the technology. It’s also about how we make this technology deliver native, personal and human-like user experiences. This is where our design and customer experience expertise kicks in.

The revolution will throw up many challenges not present on tradition implementations. How does a brand work in the various guises of personalisation? How do you get sign-off on something that will evolve through machine learning? Does the client appreciate the needed budget for data analysis, persona development, ID graphs and experience mapping? Will the target market now dictate the platform?

This is before we worry about testing, run teams, security and the wealth of content needed.

Hence, lots to do and no complacency. As an agency leader, it is my responsibility to ensure we all get the opportunity to come on the journey – and enjoy it. One that due to our scale isn’t necessarily available in every agency. And in turn our team have the responsibility to drive us forward, so collectively we ensure we have the new marketing story to tell and don’t find ourselves behind that curve, but ahead of it.


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