Brand agencies, web agencies, digital agencies, ad agencies, PR agencies, media agencies, package design agencies: In this ever shifting world of new media, who dictates strategy?
There are not only multiple touch points — each with its own technology, reach, function, and metrics — the very notion of the touch point is shifting. Where marketing was once purely a matter of seizing people's eyes, ears, and attention, it is now a matter of insinuating a brand into people's lives. It's no longer just ads or banners or websites or viral videos; it's useful iPhone apps, interactive kiosks, and websites that talk back.
And, perhaps most importantly, it needs to all be integrated: TV needs to speak to billboards which need to speak to web which needs to speak to the guy Tweeting for you which needs to speak to apps — and vice-versa and back again. Everything needs to speak to everything.
I worked for an agency in 2000 that claimed to be integrated — web, print, advertising, marcom, brand, naming. But, of course, we were better at some things than at others. And, even if we were good at everything, our clients just couldn't see it that way: we were a web shop, those guys did brand, those other guys did print.
So while an integrated agency sounds great, it's a difficult thing to pull off. The reality is that that web has very different demands in terms of knowledge and staffing than TV advertising does and these are different than branding and naming and those are different than media buying and then there's packaging and POS displays and store design.
A truly integrated agency that does everything equally well poses certain insurmountable obstacles.
But this doesn't mean the thinking can't be integrated. The question, I think, is this: Who owns that nexus? Who sees all the moving parts? Who runs strategy?
I did a gig for a media agency several years ago and they felt they were in the best position to dictate strategy. After all, they sit at the juncture all media, that place where different touch points intersect. I could see their point.
I've worked with digital agencies who feel they're the ones to do it. The world is digital now. And understanding the digital is really understanding how people interact with a brand. It seems natural to move from digital thinking to strategic thinking. So why not let the digital shop run strategy? Makes sense to me.
Then there's the branding agency, the place that specializes in strategy. In many ways, this makes the most sense: Set the brand strategy and let it cascade down through everything else. There is no doubt that the brand agency is in a unique position to dictate strategy. And there's no doubt that having a good brand strategy is an essential ingredient — fundamentally, what does the brand want to accomplish?
But does this mean the brand agency is the owner of the integrated strategy? Does it have a deep understanding of the web, of digital, of advertising and of how they all intersect? Perhaps.
Maybe it's a matter of agency collaboration, an always sticky undertaking.
Maybe it's not a matter of digital vs. brand vs. media but of this agency vs. that agency. This brand agency gets digital; that digital agency gets brand. Go with one of them.
Or maybe the new role has yet to emerge. And maybe this role is not agency-side but client-side, a great conductor of the media orchestra, not a CMO, not someone who knows the numbers but someone who knows media and strategy, someone who understands trees while seeing the forest.
Often, we encounter clients whose brands or desires seem overly complex — decentered messaging, random use of logos, sites that try to do too much, copy that tries to say too much. And we imagine it our job to simplify this complexity, to wipe away the excess, to reduce the noise. And we tend to call this simplicity. Indeed, simplicity is a mantra among designers.
But I want to suggest that these are false and misleading terms. What we encounter is not complexity; it's confusion. When we do our job well, we prioritize, organize, and distribute. We lend shape to the shapeless, form to the formless, sense to the madness. Sometimes, if not often, this means eliminating unnecessary or confusing components — wordy paragraphs, noisy web sites, murky icons.
But this work is not simplifying. It's clarifying.
It's our job to articulate the complexity of a brand as best we can — the networked milieu of employees, leadership, history, consumer desires, future needs, the competitive landscape. And to do so in a way that is at once clear, organized, meaningful, and delightful.
The simplicity/complexity dichotomy is a strategist's and designer's red herring. It is our job to give eloquent voice to the complexity.