Thanks to the Internet and digital technology, agencies are finding that the realization of their clients’ ultimate fantasy – the ability to customize a specific message to a specific person at a specific moment – is within their grasp. It is also one very complex nightmare. After all, digital isn’t just one channel. It’s a medium that blooms thousands of other mediums. Brad Jakeman, who formerly led advertising at Citigroup and Macy’s, says the explosion of platforms like search, geotargeting, the iPad, and mobile apps means fragmented media budgets and fragmented consumer attention. “The irony is that while there have never been more ways to reach consumers, it’s never been harder to connect with consumers,” explains Jakeman, now chief creative officer at Activision, the gaming company. The death of mass marketing means the end of lazy marketing. At agencies, the new norm is doing exponentially complex work. Think of the 200 Old
Spice YouTube videos whipped up by Wieden+Kennedy in 48 hours. “Creating more work for less money is the big paradox,” says Matt Howell, president of the Boston agency Modernista.
And the Internet has turned what used to be a controlled, one-way message into a real-time dialogue with millions. “Our power has been matched and, in some categories, rivaled by user influence,” says Nick Brien, CEO of Interpublic Group’s McCann Worldgroup, who notes that sites such as Engadget and Yelp can make or break a product. The opportunity for marketers is that instead of having to pay for their message to run somewhere, they can “earn” media for free, via consumers spreading YouTube clips, Groupons, and tweets as if they were trying to saturate their networks with photos of their newborn. Says Jon Bond, cofounder of Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners who left his agency last year to launch a startup: “Marketing in the future is like sex. Only the losers will have to pay for it.” But the dark side of a transparent marketplace is that marketers have never had more of an opportunity to rub consumers the wrong way and be publicly skewered. The days of lathering on a brand message that a product may not live up to are long gone.
All of this has made life much more confusing for the client. At a time of shrinking budgets, chief marketing officers don’t know where to turn. They have little confidence that old-world agencies know how to navigate the chaos, and they don’t know which newcomers to trust. “It’s the most treacherous job in corporate America, blamed for everything and credited for nothing,” concedes Jakeman, who notes that the average CMO tenure is down to 22 months.
With clients in a tailspin, the very role of agencies is in question. Many CMOs are shunning “agencies of record” relationships – the plum long-term, retainer-based deals that have been the bread and butter of full-service firms. After an agency review last year, Angelique Krembs, marketing director of PepsiCo’s SoBe brand, opted to work with only shops that specialized in digital, PR, or promotional work, excluding all generalist firms. “I didn’t see it as us ditching a creative agency. We were going beyond traditional,” says Krembs, in words that can hardly be reassuring to the old line. “We realized it was unlikely we’d find everything we wanted in one place.” That’s apt to become the norm as a generation of senior marketers emerges from the digital side, rather than from classic marketing educations at P & G or General Mills.