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The Engagement Agency Manifesto

by Ian Schafer / October 25, 2010

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

For decades, brands have approached marketing with a goal of migrating consumers through what we know as the decision funnel: awareness, interest, desire, and action.

Historically, most advertising spending has been used to affect the awareness stage, with the rationale being that unless consumers are aware of our products, how will they make it part of their consideration set? Nothing drove purchase like awareness, as a constant barrage of TV, outdoor, and print advertising helped people decide. And you know what? We got really good at it.

But something funny happened on the way to the decision.

As consumers have become more connected to information and each other, the majority now find that ‘consumer-driven marketing’ – word-of-mouth, online research, consumer reviews, blog posts, peer recommendations via social networks, twitter, and other forms of social media is more important than ever before. A 2009 report from McKinsey confirmed that “WE” have become the primary and most effective means of helping each other make a purchase decision when we reach a crucial “active evaluation” phase. And that’s no surprise as we’ve got more connections to people we know, and even people we don’t than ever before. We look up more information, ask more questions, and consult more reviews than ever before.

Of course, Awareness is still very important – it’s half the battle – it helps us, as consumers know what our potential choices are. But it’s further away from the purchase, or even the decision to purchase.

These are fascinating times. The depth of engagement between brands and consumers, and just as importantly, between consumers and each other is now as integral to a purchase decision as large-scale awareness.

So I ask the question: How can we expect the same agencies to be able to do both breadth of reach and depth of engagement? Is it even possible for agencies to do both profitably within their existing service models?

It’s not bloody likely.

When it comes to awareness, getting the right message targeted to the largest number of the right people at the right time, and the right number of times, is both art and science. For decades, agencies have attempted to perfect achieving this delicate balance as efficiently and as successfully as possible. And as they got very good at doing so, we moved from a dependency on integrated communications firms to having numerous specialized firms becoming integral to the process (such as promotions, public relations, direct marketing) to compensate for areas serviced by a different organizational structure — and different talent.

The delivery of impressions at a huge scale and with great efficiency has become one of the biggest contributors to the growth of agency profit margins and agency holding company share prices. Demand-side platforms, ad networks, automation are all leading to “perfect” awareness driving, aided by human negotiation, and augmented by math, systems, and processes. We are commoditizing awareness, and that’s good for business.

But as media undergoes some of its most rapid changes in recent history, the most-assuredly non-commoditizable media, social media, is becoming the most engaging and intensely consumed (and created) type of media.

Because of all of our connections, attention is becoming what is most scarce. More impressions are being created every second. But much like real estate, they’re not building any more attention.

When marketers choose to truly engage audiences (and that means something different for every brand), it requires more custom thinking, more custom execution, more attention paid at every turn, more real-time interaction with consumers, and a more integrated delivery of creative, media, and communications services. How can we expect the same agencies who have perfected the art of delivering efficiently massive reach to also deliver, create, and earn deeply enriching engagement?

The answer is that we can’t. These are completely different and sometimes incompatible skillsets. And as that service chasm gets wider between awareness and meaningful engagement, it only underscores the need for a new breed of agency – engagement agencies.

The engagement agency’s job is to interact with consumers in ways that add value to their everyday experiences, and make them want to engage each other because of what just happened in ways that make those experiences even better. The engagement agency strategically delivers a mix of services that reaches consumers at every point at which they engage each other: the intersection of creative and technology, media planning and buying that creates as many impressions as it buys, and communications that foster and build relationships. An engagement agency should be able to engage a consumer at every media touchpoint. And though most of those touchpoints are now digital, the engagement agency needs to move consumers emotionally as well as physically.

The engagement agency also provides its clients with a methodology for measuring the effectiveness of everything it does. This is key to evolving budgets from ‘experimental’ to ‘mature’ (or: ‘tiny’ to ‘commensurate with impact’). Until we understand what we are measuring within social media, or what engagements are “worth”, and how to evaluate them in the context of our business objectives, these kinds of efforts will never shed the ‘experimental’ stigma.

Because in order for an engagement agency to truly be successful, it needs to deliver results at scale.

As an engagement agency, it services its clients built upon a solid business model, and does not deliver engagement, or even just digital solutions as a ‘loss leader’. Sooner or later, when you service a client like a loss leader, they feel like one. The engagement agency is structured and staffed in a way that keeps profit margins intact, resulting in a better product and a healthier relationship.

The engagement agency specializes in being nimble, adaptive, innovative, and in-tune with consumer behavior. It needs to:

* Set as many trends as it latches on to.
* Recognize the cause-and-effect relationship between each consumer touch-point.
* Understand how memes are created and spread.
* Comprehend that marketing is also customer support and customer service, and vice-versa.
* Be able to guide its clients through this rapidly changing media, technology, and behavioral landscape and teach it how to act on its own, building on their own core values, and stimulate their behavioral evolution.
* Not only co-exist, but be a great partner and thrive with other mass-communications/reach agencies in the mix.

We’ve been trying to build an agency based upon the engagement model for quite some time. It hasn’t been until the advent and explosion of connective technology and the social web that it is finally looking like it will be a reality. In the many conversations we have with brands every day, we realize that engaging with the consumer is something that has gone underrepresented and underappreciated within their organizations for far too long, and only recently are they waking up to the fact that they need expert agency partners to truly make it happen and compensate for a now admitted weakness in their strategy — and agency roster.

Because of its proximity to the consumer, the engagement agency is a partner whose work begins at a highly strategic level, and then executes or manages the execution of individual tactical solutions. It delivers platforms and commitments – not just campaigns – and its results are proven to deliver a stronger rate of return — just over a longer period of time, building value, and assets, in the process.

The engagement agency should be responsible for not just digital engagement, but every aspect of brand-inspired interaction between consumers. As media continues to fragment and as technology facilitates even more interpersonal connectivity, this becomes even more important. If it does its job right, the engagement agency will eventually become the agency-of-record of the future.

Digital, social media, and public-relations agencies can make this transition if they make a commitment to integrating and diversifying their services and talent in the right ways. But the ones that are best suited to become an Engagement Agency are the ones that make it their ONLY business.

After all, a brand’s lead agency should really be the one that best understands not just the most effective ways of engaging consumers, but the ways that consumers engage with each other – and one that is committed to finally placing the consumer at the center of every marketing strategy.

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  1. Chris Johnson on October 27, 2010

    Hi Ian, I like your line of thinking, and the decision to set your stake in the ground around engagement. Digital properties are abandoning old methods of static information delivery in favor of interactive dialogues and experiences, and they’re doing so en mass. It’s not just a trend, it’s a monumental shift in philosophy. Your engagement manifesto calls for a robust understanding of behavioral dynamics on rapidly evolving platforms, and it calls for delivery at scale. Would you agree that the latter not only presents the greater challenge, but also the most obvious point for dissent? The classic quantity versus quality argument applies. In engagement, that translates into volume versus value, where value must account for a customer’s psychological and emotional commitment to the brand. This commitment, as a result or an output, of marketing initiatives, requires equal commitment on the part of the brand (or agency) – a commitment that risks dilution when driven to scale.