If you want a good idea of where your agency should be going, eat your lunch outside, and watch people. What do you see? He’s got his nose in a smartphone, and she’s sitting on a bench staring at a laptop.
These are the customers that companies want and that agencies know how to find, but given the world’s shift to digital, some have predicted the extinction of ad agencies as we know them.
In fact, an anonymous survey from RSW/US found that 320 marketing and agency leaders see a bleak future for agencies that don’t go digital. Some even predict that the agency world will either be niche, nonexistent, or extinct.
I, however, prefer to think that agencies will survive — but only if they adapt.
That will involve a laser-like focus on digital and data specialties. Some everything-for-everyone agencies may continue in a role akin to general contractors, but the money is on specialists.
The writing is on the wall for the grand agencies. Their service bundling is on a downward trajectory, and client relationships will only continue to shift away as marketers search for an agency partner that understands the specific problems they’re trying to solve and have the capabilities to do so.
The Niche Advantage
A niche agency can offer bleeding-edge solutions to advertisers. Typically small- to mid-sized, these agencies are flexible and agile, and they can throw their talent into a problem without a tangle of red tape.
What’s more, they understand the nuances of change.
For example, everyone knows that online advertising is gaining on television. But that can mean a lot of things. According to Forrester, search is shrinking, mobile is gaining on social and email, and (thanks to video) display is looking healthy.
Sorting through these trends and capitalizing on them in a timely way is the province of specialists. No one can understand everything about everything, but a specialized agency can dig deep, execute well, and adopt its business model and offerings on the fly.
It’s tempting for niche agencies to look longingly beyond their core competencies, but that’s a killer in this new world. The quality of work will decline as specialists are pulled away from what they do best, so agencies may have to decline a client’s request for something outside of their specialty.
It Adds Up
In addition to digital, the other “d” word that agencies must focus on is “data.”
The ability to access data is the new must-have competency. Almost every day, a new social monitoring, analytics, or tracking platform is introduced to the market. Smart agency executives will take advantage of the data that’s out there to build relationships.
Here are a couple ways niche agencies can capitalize on data:
- Use research to understand a client’s market. Identify the pain points of the target demographic before you even sit down to meet with the company leaders. Understanding the needs of your client’s customers will give you a competitive edge.
- Study potential clients. Go in knowing what they do well, what they don’t, and how you can help. Knowing something about the people you hope to do business with is crucial. Understand what makes them smile, as well as what makes them tick.
- Apply research to yourself. Study the trends in advertising and marketing to position your agency for future success. Do some digging to figure out how your current offerings should adjust to meet the needs of tomorrow’s market.
Using research to get that plan in place is essential. From this point forward, a successful agency is a nimble, progressive, and data-driven one.
Stand Out in the Crowd
Everyone is looking at digital — specifically social and mobile — and these niches will become saturated. It’s good to have someone with this expertise in-house, but adding staff to become the leader in these services isn’t a good move.
Instead, focus on your current strengths. The experiential agency business continues to expand, innovation agencies are thriving, and good old-fashioned branding firms will always be in demand. Whatever it is that you do, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to keep doing it with some research up-front and a few changes in your long-term strategy.
Follow the consumers. Typically a brand’s interest is reaching the right demographic at the right place at the right time, so keep an eye out for the networks, experiences, and trends of different audiences. What types of apps are becoming more popular? What is the latest piece of consumer tech, and who is using it? How can we reach them on that new platform?
Your research on a client and its industry will be your differentiator. And when your eyes get blurry from reading, step out on the sidewalk to study your client’s customers.
William Boydston leads The List’s agency advisory services team, creating actionable intelligence and helping partners connect and engage with their most sought-after clients. The core of his experience has been in research with a dedicated focus on the agency landscape and ensuring that clients have the vital information for building business relationships.