The obsolete in reverse

Columnist Will Novosedlik speculates on the future of marketing.

By Will Novosedlik

Baking marketing into the product. The focus group without walls. From campaign to sustain. These are some of the themes that emerged when I asked two of my colleagues here at Idea Couture to speculate on the future of marketing.
The usual prognostications are becoming tiresome. Channel fragmentation, the challenge of integrated communications, digital vs. analog, empowered customer vs. exposed brands, the demise of the agency, and so on. That doesn’t mean they’re not true, but they’re being beaten to death. Time to dig deeper.
Let’s start with a known trend, that of co-creation. In its simplest form, it has been brought to life within the context of campaigns utilizing user-generated content. The Doritos Viralocity campaign of last year and the currently running VW Golf campaign come to mind. In both cases, content is solicited from “fans” of the brand and used, in varying amounts, in commercials crafted by the agencies.
This is co-creation light. Agencies and clients have grabbed the wrong end of the bat. Co-creation is far more valuable at the very beginning of the marketing process than at the end. It should be about asking questions that lead to innovative new products, services and experiences that don’t yet exist. Instead of asking people to come up with a clever idea for a TV spot, maybe we should be asking them, “do we really need another corn chip? What’s up with corn chips anyway?”
This opened up dialogue among us about the notion of inverting the old top-down industrial model of product development embodied in the phrase “build it and they will come.” Instead of the producer bringing the agency a final product and asking it to make it interesting, maybe the producer should bring a prototype to the customer and ask, “what’s interesting about this?” Then, it’s the agency’s job to interpret the dialogue and refine the product to strengthen that built-in story.
Of course this type of crowdsourcing is done to a limited extent in the traditional focus group setting, or with surveys. But that model is less and less relevant in a world where it’s possible to converse with customers at any stage in the marketing cycle. Continuous dialogue with customers in real time and in their real environment means you’re operating in a focus group without walls, all the time, at every stage of the process. That’s the future of co-creation. And it’s already started.
So what impact will the focus group without walls have? If the continuity of dialogue with customers has obsolesced the focus group, it’s also obsolescing the campaign model. If the feedback loop is continuous, and we’re responsive, the fruits of our collaboration should make it less necessary to mount the massive campaigns we are used to. We’ll move from a “campaign” to a “sustain” mindset. It won’t be us vs. them; it will be us and them making the market together.
More sustained, long-term cultural narratives will allow both sides to focus on question forming rather than question asking. The process will be about building products and services by forming the right questions. Instead of a culture formed by business, we could have a business formed by culture.  How refreshing would that be?
So how will the marcom infrastructure be affected? The problem is that no agency is channel agnostic. And many are still based on the media landscape of the last century, which means TV and the web media that emulate it are still the ultimate goal of copywriters and art directors everywhere.
Most agencies have tried to absorb digital talent, but integration has been slow while the corollary – a rapid proliferation of digital shops – has been rampant. And now we’re seeing the proliferation of social shops as well. These days, it’s not uncommon to be at meetings with five or more agencies around the table. The idea of a true full-service agency is dead to all but those who are too emotionally – if not financially – invested in it.
Increasing channel fragmentation already requires multidisciplinary collaboration, with no one provider at the head of the pack. And with the increasing importance of customer experience, creative services firms will be under pressure to “do” more than “say” – the emphasis will move from just making messages to designing and crafting experiences, both digital and dirt-based.
The days of the agency occupying the top of the pyramid are in decline. It’s now the customer who sits up there, as it should be. The rest of us need to learn to fall in behind.

Will Novosedlik is VP brand & design thinking at Idea Couture. Special thanks to colleagues Sean Hazell (senior strategist/brand innovation) and Ricky Thomas (co-head of strategic foresight) for participating in creating the content for this column.