It’s great that Brand Experience budgets are rising. But with ad agency tanks on your lawn, it’s time to raise your game and avoid the fate of previous ‘hot’ disciplines.
Whether you’ve read Campaign’s recent ‘Future of Branded Experiences’ trends report or even identify as a ‘Brand Experience’ agency, it’s fair to say that agency leaders in this space have plenty on their plates.
So having advised a bunch of Brand Experience CEOs, here are some ideas for where to prioritise against a range of new opportunities and threats.
Tailor to the market you’re in
The good news is that budgets are rising. Also the trend for longer term activations – and greater scope to demonstrate ROI – is fuelling more retainers. Similarly, product sales and paid events are helping evolve commercial models.
If that sounds like you, then tailoring your growth model is a matter of urgency. From proposition and audience, to sales process and pricing, being ‘growth ready’ for what is a very different sell is essential.
If you’re more project-focused, then you should also benefit from more executional briefs and new entrants to the Brand Experience market. But make sure you’re trading on something beyond price, otherwise it’s a race to the bottom and your sparkling ‘chemistry’ won’t save your margins.
And if you find yourself caught between these two stalls, then tread carefully. Just like on the high street, there’s a real squeeze in the middle.
Place your bets wisely
Unsurprisingly, although budgets are up, chronic agency oversupply means that pitches are on the rise too – hence Campaign focusing on rising costs and longer processes.
Although you’re probably pretty strong at pitching – if that’s still a big part of your route to market – do remember the maxim of ‘pitch less, win more’.
Most agencies claim they’re good at saying ‘no’, but often the value of rigorous decision-making is underappreciated. After all, there’s a strong correlation between margin and a high threshold to compete.
The best exponents of saying no – i.e. being clear on fit and valuing their own time – also have a broader definition of ‘qualification’.
Rather than just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when a brief arrives, they cultivate an ongoing sense of jeopardy in the client’s mind – and that doesn’t end when the work is won.
This loss aversion is powerful stuff. It’s how the most successful agencies leverage their scarcity to improve their odds – and their profits.
Beware competitive complacency
Unsurprisingly, Campaign’s report highlights where advertising agencies have made a splash in your world. And when generalists encroach on the specialists, it’s easy for the latter to assume their greater expertise will keep them safe.
Don’t make this mistake.
You’re no longer just competing with specialists who are as good as you. Now you’re also competing with generalists who are great self-publicists, have the ear of senior clients and promise seductive economies of scale.
If you’re still feeling cosy, consider the content agencies. Remember them? A few years ago, content was the hot discipline. But where are most of those agencies now?
Mainstream Adland easily dismissed content’s flimsy claim to be the hero to advertising’s villain. They added ‘content’ to their service list and clients were happy – despite content agencies having valuable skills that ad agencies lacked.
So how do you avoid all that?
Leave the pinhead disco
Obviously you know you need to be different, but many CEOs focus their efforts in the wrong place.
Consider your positioning, which I’m defining as the discipline you’re in. We all know that agencies often default to very similar language. But in the Brand Experience space, the buzzword bingo is particularly bad.
The word cloud above features the key statements from each of the top 40 Brand Experience agencies. Aside the worrying lack of diversity, there’s also very little progression beyond simply re-articulating the discipline – hence the domination of ‘brands’, ‘experiences’ and ‘connect’.
In fairness, this isn’t surprising. Agency CEOs often feel that the term ‘Brand Experience’ doesn’t do them justice.
With emerging technologies and improved measurement techniques creating new opportunities for innovation, struggling to finesse a satisfying definition of what is an increasingly broad church is an easy trap to fall into.
It also doesn’t help when WPP merges VML with Y&R and calls the resulting “integrated digital and creative offering” a Brand Experience agency.
My advice is to not worry. Using woolly discipline definitions may not be perfect but, like democracy, it’s the least worst system we have.
Think of ‘Brand Experience’ as no more than a signage; tempting clients into the shop. Like being a ‘teacher’ or an ‘artist’, your discipline is just a conversation starter – enough to intrigue the interested and deflect those that aren’t.
What problem do you solve
The critical nuance is that your positioning – being a Brand Experience agency – is far less differentiating than your proposition, i.e. the value you create.
So with all this opportunity attracting yet more competition, it’s essential to get beyond empty slogans and find an ownable definition of the outcome you specialise in delivering.
Here’s an easy test. Ask of your current ‘proposition’, could the opposite ever be true? If not – e.g. ignoring culture, inauthentic experiences, disconnecting people and brands – then it’s a category generic and a serious barrier to growth.
But if you get your proposition right, it’s transformational – not least in starting prospect conversations further down your sales funnel, rather than wasting time trying to appeal to everyone.
That means your ideal clients are relieved to know you exist, rather than you wasting time fighting for places on over-long shortlists.
In short, show a specific audience that you’re a surgeon not a GP. Once you decide what problem you solve and build your agency’s entire customer experience around it, clients will thank you.
Getting from good to great
Whether these issues ring alarm bells or you barely need to sense-check what you’re already doing, the key thought here is the value of a bespoke growth model.
Given the evolving opportunities and threats you face, it’s usually true that ‘what got you here won’t get you there’. So whether your growth has plateaued or maybe you’re just sure you could be doing better, so-called ‘best practice’ will only get you so far.
The road to maximising standout, conversion and profit starts by defining a more tailored approach.