Agency in the digital world

Not an agency playbook

(After a long time I have struggled with a title of a blog post. Before writing a story, I have a picture in my head and after that, it is a simple job of painting the picture on my blog. I always have the title even before the picture. But today it is different and I think it is good to have chaos to bring life in order.)

“Prasant (yup that is how I spell my name) what do you think should be the future of the digital agency in the next two years. What would be your vision and thoughts?” an industry acquaintance recently asked me who has spent most of his life with traditional agencies. (I think I should stop differentiating agencies as traditional vs digital agencies. We are agencies solving marketing problems in the digital world.)

I was surprised, why somebody from the agency world who himself has so much experience wants my views on the digital agency business and the future. Today I make my living by giving consulting gyaan on digital, I have completely kept myself out of the agency business and limelight. (No I am not doing daily Insta Live sessions for a month now to restart my old startup. I want to be a better listener and have a million followers organically on Instagram)

Last year I was offered to build a new agency from scratch in Bangalore. I backed off because I was not in the right mindset and I was scared. I don’t have the zeal or the madness to start one more startup. And the last time I created a vision document and tried raising funds for my failed startup, I was able to convince myself.

With all this drama, I kept on blabbering for 30 minutes just like that on how I think an agency should focus and build its business in the next few years. I don’t want to say it but in the post-COVID-19 world( by the way, what is the post-COVID-19 world? Sorry I am not smart enough to foresee future)

I don’t give gyaan because I am not an expert. And this post is about my thoughts. You may agree at times or completely thrash by saying Prasant you haven’t built an agency and you are an idiot. I won’t mind and you are free to unsubscribe from my thoughts.

After observing the digital and social media marketing industry for nearly decade now, working with an agency for 8 months (that didn’t go well, someday I might write a book about the challenges of a failed entrepreneur and his struggle to find a fitment in the society and business) and now still writing, observing the growing digital industry. COVID-19 has a big role to play and Tom Fishburne says it best:

The future of the agency is creativity backed by technology

Don’t start yawning, the weekend is almost there. I understand that you must have read or heard this line in almost every forum and these days in webinars and thought leader LinkedIn articles. Let me break it down in a simplistic way, that is how I see things:

Creative and design

Content is the heart and soul of advertising. I don’t believe it is ever going to change irrespective of mediums. My classic example is Amul - I love the content on the billboards to Facebook or Twitter posts. So my first advice was to build a solid digital team led by a digital strategy and operations person. Because of your digital marketing campaigns and the hygiene social media marketing content is not going anywhere.

Brands have understood that posting 10 Facebook posts in a day is what fans don’t want to see. Actually people are on social media because they want to have fun and not to see content from the brand.

So your digital investments are going to go from here on. I am aware that brands have frozen their ad budgets but digital is the only way forward. People are spending more time on digital and brands don’t want to burn money on TV and other mediums. Especially when the economy is royally fucked and businesses are getting wiped.

So either it is digital or no advertising.

While you build a strong strategy and execution team, most agencies don’t invest in design. By design, I am not saying to build a design hub but for those simple Instagram visuals, you need a creative mind who can take brand messaging and produce artwork for different platforms with the understanding of how various mediums work. Obviously a Facebook creative isn’t meant to be auto-posted on Instagram with a call to action in the copy. 

For fuck sake, the copy of Instagram still doesn’t allow the call to action links. Either you run ads or put that call to action link on your Instagram bio. Just the other day I saw a celebrity chef asking people to donate money for a charity without even checking what content he is posting. I don’t think he has the time to look at it, its the job of the execution team or the agency to have the basic understanding.

We don’t give value to simple things and we are chasing for the next big thing

Build a strong digital team that gives importance to strategy, execution, and design.

One small piece of advice: don’t be an execution agency, don’t just say we need to to a TikTok campaign because it is where we have the views. Take a step back read the fucking brief, think why the business is spending money, and who is the target audience. Sleep, take a deep breath think and then talk about the execution or the mediums.

The business objective is far more important than mediums.

Technology team

By tech, I don’t mean that you should start investing in AI, Machine Learning, and other fancy things that are very cool to say in a forum or share it with the media. If you have the money and it solves a consumer problem then please do it. I am not competent to say anything on it but don’t do it for winning “Digital Transformation Awards.”

There are agencies who do work and who do PR. Decide what you want to do?

By tech, I mean going back to the basics of the business of building websites of today’s age, SEO, and Email Marketing. Yes, these are still relevant, they might not be the fancy things but they are back into the business.

For the last two year, I have been shouting that the only two things as a brand you have on the Internet is Website and the community you have built via Email Marketing.

You don’t own your social networks, you just have your boring website that even your CMO doesn’t want to have a look at. Why? I have believed that a website should be like a Vogue Magazine - I am not saying you should have a hot model on your web page. But make it exciting, informative, and easy to use.

Talk to any CMO, his favourite brand would be Red Bull when it comes to content. Have you seen the website of Red Bull? Do you see cans of the brands or do you see how it is giving wings to passion and sports. On Instagram the company categories itself into Media/News Company and Coca Cola does it under FMCG. You are smart enough to undersand?

While working with the agency I had an opportunity to pitch to a large e-Commerce fashion brand. The brand wanted to evolve from the sales mentality and wanted to be the thought leader. It was a mainline pitch with digital playing a big role. So the limelight was on me and I loved it. We lost the pitch and my idea was trashed. But I think it was my best piece of work because it provided me an opportunity to integrate publishing and digital. A few months later I tried selling the not so unique idea to decision-makers but it is a risky and capital intensive idea. There were no takers so decided to archive it on my blog, read when you have time.

Read: Why brands need to think like publishers

Coming back either you build tech in-house or you collaborate with any other player in the market on a project to project basis. But my advice would be to burn your money on this because websites will never go out of the business. The first thing that pops on the Internet is your website. So don’t neglect it as a brand and business.

The last question the gentleman asked me about Digital Advertising as a wing?

“Do it once you have done your basics right otherwise you are stepping into two boats at one time. Best work with other players in the market and later if you have the money get people on board who understand the media business. I have very little understanding but I also understand that majority of agencies have a media arm to make some more commission and it also looks good as a 360-degree agency when the acquisition talks happen.”

I don’t know about you but the gentleman was very happy with my gyaan. Trust me I didn’t charge for my 30 minutes, I suck even as a consultant. I am learning. 

There are so many independent digital agencies who are doing the same that I just shared. Obviously, there are so many challenges, and writing about and sharing wisdom is the easiest job. My apologies if I have been a complete idiot with this post. My best wishes to all those who are struggling and still doing whatever they can do to survive and scale. COVID-19 has it made tough but you guys have done it and you will do better.