The Client Dilemma
Posted on September 24, 2018 | By By Iain Akerman

All agencies, be they advertising, media or PR, are vying for clients’ digital budgets. But are clients in the process of moving on?

Who should brands turn to for their digital needs? It’s a pertinent question in this age of ever-increasing competition. The agency world is crowded. Clients have more options than ever. Consultancies are gaining ground. This is no place for the faint of heart. 

As Sunil John, founder and chief executive of Asda’a Burson-Marsteller, told ArabAd last year: “Everybody is battling to take that lead role and the battle on the digital front is where the real winners and losers will come.”

The criticality of digital is such that even consultancies such as Accenture are eating into the communications sector, with advertising, media, PR and specialist boutique agencies all fighting for clients’ digital budgets. With those budgets increasing every year, the battle is only going to intensify.

In essence there are two divergent views of how digital should be offered to clients. One is that specialisation is key. Two is that a consolidated, integrated agency offering with digital at the core is the answer to clients’ needs, be it advertising, PR or media agency led.

“Our strategy is to focus first on the point where commercial reality and marketing meet, which is usually at C-Suite level. If we are to deliver a complete comms solution this is the only approach that makes sense.”--Mark Fiddes, executive creative director at Havas Dubai.

SPECIALISTAION IS KEY

The biggest proponents of specialisation are, of course, boutique digital and social media agencies. Conversely, whereas once specialisation was in fashion with the bigger networks, now integration is, with many agencies folding all disciplines and standalone digital brands into a single mother agency. The idea being that everything is now driven by digital.

It’s a trend that Havas pre-empted with the creation of its Havas Villages, which help to build creative business partnerships across all disciplines. “Our strategy is to focus first on the point where commercial reality and marketing meet, which is usually at C-Suite level,” says Mark Fiddes, executive creative director at Havas Dubai. “If we are to deliver a complete comms solution this is the only approach that makes sense. Competing to deliver only one part of the mix can ultimately be frustrating, particularly if you see that the overall strategy is flawed.”

Meanwhile, agencies such as Triangle and Born Interactive, both based in Beirut, are focussing purely on digital. As a result, the latter’s “access to in-house technology skills and resources allows us to offer seamlessly integrated digital communication solutions”, asserts Fadi Sabbagha, Born Interactive’s founder and CEO.

Which approach is right? Well, that’s the 10 billion dollar question. And one that only clients can really answer.

“There is awareness on the client side that the lazy approach of having a single agency do everything is not efficient.”--Hamad Malik, head of marketing at beIN Media Group

“In today’s time and age, all partner agencies need to have solid capabilities in the digital space,” says Hamad Malik, head of marketing at beIN Media Group. “Creative agencies need to think formats and creative ideas that will work with audiences glued to their digital devices; media agencies needs to think about digital media buying, deep analysis of campaign performance and impact on clients’ KPIs; and social media agencies need to think about how to engage prospects and customers of a brand within the social media space.  

“So in most of the cases their remits are different, yet they need to come together for the benefit of their clients. It’s not a case of one agency taking over the work of all others or even taking the lead all the time. A good concept can come from any agency and then others need to play their part in fulfilling the client requirements. Clients need to have the skill to get all the agencies working together harmoniously in order to meet their objectives.”

For Malik, specialisation is alive and well. “Clients with decent marketing budgets need specialisation,” he says. “There is awareness on the client side that the lazy approach of having a single agency do everything is not efficient. Most of the marketing departments now have strategic, creative, media buying and digital professionals in-house who liaise with the relevant/multiple agency partners.”

“While specialisation is still needed, overspecialisation in the past has led agencies to lose sight of the bigger picture. This gap is today being filled by consultancies.”--Asad Rehman, Unilever’s director of media and digital transformation MENA

THE NEED FOR CONSOLIDATION

Specialisation is not without its drawbacks, though, as Asad Rehman, Unilever’s director of media and digital transformation for the Middle East and North Africa, explains. It’s the reason why agencies have been busy integrating their units into a single offering.

“While specialisation is still needed, overspecialisation in the past has led agencies to lose sight of the bigger picture,” says Rehman. “This gap is today being filled by consultancies. In the list of 2017’s top 10 agencies provided by Ad Age, Accenture for instance sits at the number one spot. How agencies continue working with clients and the approach that new entrants are adopting is reflective of this need for consolidation.”

Unilever’s digital transformation is an indicator of the challenge facing all agencies. Its digital strategy includes the application of digital technologies to content creation, data analytics, ecommerce, the Internet of Things, mobile marketing and social media in order to bring about change, not only in how Unilever engages with consumers, but in how it functions as an organisation. Where do agencies fit into all of this? There’s no guarantee that they do.

“Access to in-house technology skills and resources allows us to offer seamlessly integrated digital communication solutions.”--Fadi Sabbagha, Born Interactive’s founder and CEO.

“Given the accelerated rate of change externally, and the need for consolidation across these disciplines, we are actively bringing in-house some of the core expertise such as on data, CRM, management of marketing tech etc,” says Rehman. “The objective of this approach is to help drive cohesive output across our marketing disciplines and to look at what is being called the creation of ‘holistic consumer experiences’.

“Bringing the expertise in-house implies the creation of cross-functional teams of digital experts who are co-located. Their focus in not on driving ‘functional excellence’, but on bringing their skill-based contributions to the team with an output driven approach. This forms the core part of our digital transformation.”

It is an approach that is allowing Unilever to “go beyond silos of agencies, consolidating expertise no matter where it sits”, be it with an agency, contractor or a Unilever resource.

At the heart of Unilever’s digital strategy is ‘consumer centricity’, whereby Unilever is seeking to engage more deeply with its consumers, be it in-store, online, or on-mobile. All is supported by data-driven marketing that allows for greater customisation of messages and experiences.

“The digital strategy of yesteryears, which focused on dealing with digital media, has today completely pivoted into a transformation strategy that changes the way we do the business,” says Rehman. “Not necessarily covering just marketing communications, but also touching other aspects of business, such as the application of blockchain solutions in supply chain to track the movement of ingredients and products across the different touchpoints. Another example is the application of cognitive and machine learning capabilities to help business analytics. We are also looking at voice-powered search playing a central part in our ongoing digital transformation, whereby we aim to leverage Amazon’s Alexa platform to get closer to our consumers.

“Some of the above is being delivered by agencies, but a lot of the work to help address our strategic capability we are building via in-house development of infrastructure, such as data management platforms, PRM/CRM capabilities and where we are supported by various partners on their execution.”

Where does this leave agencies? For many, in uncertain territory, facing competition from every direction.

“We don’t think there is such a thing is a single digital partner,” says Rehman. “It is the job of the whole village. If we have an idea of what output we are looking for, we will bring about resources, capabilities and technologies and talent no matter where it comes from. Our approach to business is fundamentally built on this principal.”