Reinvention is a constant that all businesses and industries go through. Ad Agencies, Media Agencies, Market Research Agencies and Management Consultancies are currently going through one such reinvention, and a dramatic one at that. These professional services help organizations interact and influence the end individual. They exist and thrive in what I call the Insight Economy.
The future for these kinds of companies are not very clear. Industry and organizational experimentation is happening in all areas. The successful new professional service will be one that accurately understands the nature and needs of the new industry environment.
The Pains of an Industry:
The Digital Disruption has made interacting with the individual exponentially more complex and nuanced. The plethora of new channels not only makes reaching a segmentation more difficult, but traditional segmentations are obsolete as individualized digital experiences are creating people with multi-faceted, multi-layered and unique identity points.
Digital has lowered barriers of entry to many industries and professional competition is on the rise in all domains. Tech companies are becoming media agencies, management consultancies are becoming digital agencies, and digital agencies are becoming traditional/creative agencies.
Competition is not only rising in the professional practices, but where it actually counts too: the ability to influence. Digital has enabled each connected individual to potentially be the king of their own domain, or the multiple domains in their sphere of influence. The open stream of consciousness that now exists means the work and influence offered by professional services is even more at risk of being belittled and relegated to irrelevance.
The ever-evolving nature of Digital means everyone, including those traditionally seen as ‘experts’, has fallen perpetually behind.
And so clients have lost confidence in the ability of these professional services to provide a reliable and appropriate return on investment. If the professional service’s influence on the end individual is diminished, if they don’t even know what would influence the end individual, and if they may not even have the capacity to learn what could influence the individual, why should clients pay?
What makes matters worse is that most professional services are still organized in large, lumbering, un-adaptive institutions that derive their revenues from over-charging on services that are fast becoming obsolete themselves.
In other words,
Its chaos out there
We’ve got our backs to the wall
And we don’t know what to do
So what is the most promising and versatile business model for the agencies and consultancies in the Insight Economy?
Formation & Scale:
1) Be Lean & Tactical, Modular in Growth
Lets take a page out of the geopolitics strategy playbook. Traditional military units are ineffective in engaging trans-border terrorist groups, but we’ve now created tactical military cells specially equipped to handle specific needs and objectives in specific circumstances in specific locales. Professional services need to be reformed the same way. No longer can we operate with large, generalist divisions. We need to live in small cells of tactical units; each designed to be the expert on a specific purpose, in a specific environment, in a specific localization. Only then can we be flexible and focused enough to stay on top of the learning curve, and adapt to evolving situations. It’s also cost-effective. Operating a smaller group means the unit can survive at a time when the work required becomes more piecemeal while still requiring a high state of intensity.
Lean and Focused doesn”t mean alone. Like terrorist cells or elite military units, professional services need to live in fluid integrated networks that work in tandem, coordinated to achieve one objective. Different units of the same expertise should be built in different localizations to master the nuances of the diverse geographies. Professional services should drop in and out of different situations, working with different partners, and solve different problems.
It”s the only way to operate in this influentially-fractionalized environment.
2) Be Upward+Downward Scalable
Fast Company recently published a fantastic article about advertising, and in it they described a company called Co, a 5-person consultancy that can draw upon a network of 44 multi-disciplinary partner agencies in the event they take on a project more than their 5-person team can handle. In this way they can scale up and down to precisely fit the project size. In addition, they can invite the right combination of talents together that fit the project scope.
Upwards+Downwards Scalability may not be the most job secure, but its more sustainable than the status quo. Clients and the work require greater and greater customization. If you cannot offer the exact solution, a competing team will. The industry can no longer afford or tolerate redundancies. Those that expected an advertising or media job to mean a steady paycheck should wake up. The future of this industry will look a lot more like the film-production industry, where everyone lives project by project.
Such frequent scaling may pose problems for quality control, but this is the challenge of the new professional service. Creating replicable guidelines, procedures and methodologies to ensure highly integrated collaboration from Day 1 will be the mark of a successful company.
3) Be Highly Specialized, Non-Integrated, and Positioned to Frame the Question
AdAge published an article by TB Song, Ogilvy’s Greater China Chairman that talks about the changing trends in China. Song states:
“Marketers often spend 10% of their budget to produce the average TV spot and 90% to blast it across mass media. In the coming years, budgets will look more like those of movie studios –80% for production and 20% on promotion. The stronger the content, the less one needs to spend on publicity.”
Indeed, today’s individual will only pay attention if there are nuanced, resonating, and timely personal meanings and relationships involved. But in this chaos its not only content production that will grow, the more important issue is What the content production should be, and Who it is for.
Song proposes that Ad Agency Planners will break away and form their own niche practices. I agree with Song’s forecast. Successfully answering “What content production should be and Who it is for” requires long-term, immersed specializations in categories/practices to develop the proper insights and trust. As traditional segmentations give way to tribal rituals, secrets, and micro-social interactions, the important question becomes which tribe, ritual, secret, and interaction should the organization/brand be involved with. Only a highly specialized professional service has the chance to answer this question. Specialists need to detach themselves from their present integrated service units in order to focus on particular areas and find the greatest relevant value – that”s what clients are really ready to pay for.
Unfortunately not all specialists –and by extension agencies– are created equal. Planners are already positioned to capture high individual value because they are helping make sense of the chaos, and helping to frame the question. By the same logic specialized market researchers and management consultants may have a similar value-added.
This leaves Creatives in a particularly difficult position. In an age where one ‘Big Idea’ has a harder and harder time convincing its value and ability to resonate, Creatives are at risk of becoming a commodity. The earlier mentioned Fast Company article suggests that the way to capture higher value is for Creative Strategists to evolve from story-tellers to story-builders, meaning they curate, participate, and add to a never-ending storyline/lines in co-creation with the end individuals. This again would need to be highly specialized, as story-builders need to be adept at maintaining and innovating intricate interactions that are relevant to the cultural nuances of the particular community.
There are some services following de-integration that will be commoditized, and have already begun so. Media buying, media metrics, and to a lesser extent creative production are becoming more interchangeable and will become generally support-services, because they don’t answer the main value question “What content production should be and Who is it for”.
Those that will offer the highest value, and reap the greatest rewards, will be those professional services that can de-integrate, and be highly specialized with the ability to Frame the Question.
While the above Formation, Scale and Scope sections deal with organizing oneself for tomorrow’s industry, this Value section is about defining and defending a sustainable positioning.
4) Give Free Data-Points, Get Paid for Insights
A great blog article interviewing the founder of PSFK reveals the new nature of information value-creation, and anyone in the Business of Information –professional services, publishers, media– should pay attention. The small team at PSFK navigates through an immense amount of information and data points at a voracious speed. Acting as a media platform, they freely share and broadcast the information they come across with the public. PSFK instead gets work and makes its money consulting on concept development and trends. Their value-added is not from the selection of information they broadcast, but from linking disparate data points, synthesizing patterns into insights.
Why freely publish what you’re looking at? Shouldn’t keeping it secret give you more advantage?
PSFK has embraced the new reality that information flows free, and the benefits gained from free broadcast outweigh the loss of potential revenue from taxing that information access. Consider why you use Twitter. What benefits come from freely tweeting and re-tweeting all those links? For one, you gain a following of people who begin to associate you as a credible source for a specific kind of information — sounds to me like the best kind of advertising you could hope for. Perhaps more importantly, you build conversations and relationships with a growing network of like-minded and equally amazing people. A network that will elevate the quality of information you consume by in turn sharing with you what they’re looking at. In this new insight economy, professional services are only as good as their information community. The traditional model of market research that ignores community immersion and commitment is dead. Give free data-points. Build your information community. Get paid for deeply nuanced insights.
5) Narrow-Casted Community Connectors
Your community is your long-term defendable competitive advantage because it is one of the most difficult assets to build and copy. Ask any Web 2.0 platform and they’ll attest to this. Communities are not just important for social media, but as we’ve just discussed, for professional services as well. Once you have immersed yourself with credibility and trust in a distinguishable community, clients won’t just want to draw on your insights from that community, they’ll want to connect to the community itself. And they’ll hire you to help them do it. This is the professional service’s next value added beyond insight. This is the real influence industry.
As a community connector, a professional service will ‘narrowcast’: strategically identifying and working with a small group of community leaders who influence the influencers. Each company will narrowcast in the community they’re immersed in. PSFK offers connection to high-level creative thinkers. Co, narrowcasts from their extensive network of media, branding, technology and other experts in North America. Victor & Spoils, another company mentioned in the Fast Company article, crowd-sources creative production from their base of operations in Boulder, Colorado. China Youthology, the company I help lead, will explore connection opportunities between passionate organizations and the China Youth community.
Being a connector can produce powerful win-win opportunities, but can only be achieved by first having credibility with the community. This credibility is rooted in deep immersion, commitment, passion and membership.
“Won”t you be my neighbour?”
Where could we see this new model of professional service enter mainstream use?
It would have to be a place that a) Clients are willing to try new things and are thirsty for an edge b) There is less dominance by conglomerate holding companies c) There is a sufficient supply of talented specialists d) There is an entrepreneurial spirit by those in the industry e) There are growing communities of interest
I’d say that China has some challenges when it comes to growing the supply of quality talented specialists, but this problem is already on its way to solving itself as more and more talent migrates to Asia in search for new opportunities. The other hurdle for China are the clients. It is not that China’s domestic clients aren’t willing to try something new, but the unsophistication, immaturity and general lack of standards in the client-agency/consultancy relationship has in the past made progress difficult. A lot of education, hand-holding, and culture-building continues to be needed. But perhaps this is also China’s saving grace. With less legacy impeding the breaking of convention, maybe China will have an easier time embracing a new agency and consultancy model.
However, I can also see other regions being the first to champion this model. All have their weaknesses and strengths, but all are in desperate need for change, and a model — like this one — that can help solve their ills. I would also surmise that the adoption of this model may arise by industry instead of by geography. Ad agencies and Market Research agencies I would expect to be the first.
Some last thoughts:
With all this reinvention going on in agencies and consultancies, the onus is really on Clients. In the new Insight Economy marketers will not be able to rely on a one-stop-shop to answer all their questions and do all their work. It won’t be only a matter of assigning budgets and deliberating on pitches. While able to help clients frame the right questions and connect highly nuanced strategies, new agencies and consultancies will only be able to add value if the client is sophisticated enough to know what kind of professional service they need, and what kinds of value creation really matter to the organization.
If you’re finding yourself in the Insight Economy, and feel the pains of the industry, start your reinvention by first asking, What’s your specific community of connection? How do you immerse to capture the right, relevant insights and build to provide a unique, value-added professional service?