Could the role of navigator be the next agency revolution?

Ken Wong on the changing nature of media-agency-client relations.

By Ken Wong

Imagine a situation where you, as a supplier, felt your retail partner didn’t understand your product or didn’t pursue the right kind of customer. Wouldn’t you feel compelled to sell direct?

Now imagine that you, the retailer, can see this happening and, in fact, have always worried your supplier would bypass you if they could. Wouldn’t you start promoting your service experience instead of the products?

Now imagine yourself as the customer. Can you trust the retailer to give you honest advice? Wouldn’t you want to become a lot more self-sufficient?

We see this situation all the time. And now, it would seem, we are also witnessing this in the new normal of media-agency-client relations.

Technology and media firms have inventory they want (and need) to move. Agencies have creative and other skills they feel are undervalued in a world where everyone is drawn to the new shiny object being waved in front of them by digital media companies. Clients, who are now seeing all those years they stopped training in-house coming back to bite them, are increasingly going to the source to educate on digital media management and even predictions about trends for the future.

But is this really new? I can recall when Tim Penner, former president of P&G, made his infamous “travel agency” speech. He railed against ad agencies that wanted to keep everything in-house as opposed to joining forces with other specialized agencies. Penner reasoned that no agency could be the best at everything. So he proposed a model where agencies would do what they did best and then connect him to the best of breed in these specialized, often new areas. Which, it would seem, is exactly what we’re seeing today.

Should we be worried?

On the surface, no. For the last 60 years we have known, at least in academic circles, that there’s a set of tasks that has to be performed to make a sale, and “who does what” will be in a constant state of flux depending on who can do it most effectively and efficiently. These two conditions are universal – it doesn’t matter whether we talk retailing or communications. It’s one of the finest examples of “free market forces” at play.

As for clients becoming more self-sufficient, what took them so long? Ever hear of caveat emptor? If clients aren’t keeping up with the latest and greatest, and aren’t equipping themselves to make good decisions, then their management is being grossly overpaid.

But I do see major problems. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the marketing scene is the presence of interaction effects (you can get some relaxation from either a tranquilizer or a shot of liquor; take the two together, you really relax).

We know that media and message don’t work independently – that some media are better suited than others to deliver different types of messages.
We know different people tend to use different media and for different purposes. In fact, we’re even seeing that for some media like smartphones, the owners of different devices have different behaviours in the use of the technology.

In short, we know we are entering a period when there is more to know about everything and more permutations and combinations than ever before. So who will help us navigate this if everyone is acting independently?

Using Penner’s travel agency metaphor: it was easy to choose the elements of a trip independently for an overnight business trip, it is quite another to do so for a 40-day, 12-country road trip, especially if currency acceptance and geographic borders keep changing.

Could it be that the next big thing is an agency that doesn’t do anything beyond orchestrate? An entity that is agnostic to who does what as long as the right things get done in th e right way at the best price? Which draws budget away from creative and media providers? An advisor that will place both traditional agency and media companies one more step away from the big table?

The sandbox is only so big and it gets even smaller when we stop collaborating and bringing out the best in each other. Isn’t making those around them better the quality of superstars?

Longtime strategy columnist and advisor Ken Wong is the professor of marketing and business strategy at Queen’s University School of Business, and VP knowledge development for Level 5.