Who will build the Agency OS?

July 30, 2013 — 3 Comments

As soon as something goes wrong in an agency (mercifully, not as common as you’d think) everyone starts yelling about process. Who followed it, who didn’t, why it doesn’t work and how it should. That’s the wrong time to be worried about process, frankly. What’s more interesting is how almost no-one, at these critical moments, ever pulls out a piece of paper with ‘The Process” written across the top and holds everyone accountable to it.

And that’s because the piece of paper doesn’t usually exist. ‘The Process’ is a mystical thing in most agencies, something akin to a belief system, that unites individuals of common vintages, departments and roles against pretty much everyone else, particularly when the shit starts meeting the Dyson Air Multiplier.

Why there really is no ‘The Process’.

Image by Martin Ollman

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‘The Process’ is rarely written down, partly because it’s hard, thankless work but mainly because the variables involved in producing (or even not producing) work in an agency have become awesome in scale, and a decision-tree style logic flow is simply unable to cope with reality. This is where software appears to be stepping in.

ERP-style approaches to the production process have been around forever, mainly in the form of print-production workflow management software that have grown over time to encompass digital and screen production. But they just monitor the process – they don’t really help you understand or improve it.

On the other end of the spectrum, big agencies like Ogilvy (the one I work for) have developed a series of tools  for integrated planning, briefing and delivery called Fusion, but these major on the intellectual end of the endeavour. At a more prosaic level, Fusion doesn’t really tell you what was supposed to be done today and whose throat you’ll have to choke to get it.

What both of these approaches have in common is a fairly high level of required investment: either in terms of straight-up dollars for software purchases or the kind of deep-bench global-network intellectual capital that’s required to develop something like Fusion from scratch.

Enter the cloud

Image by Martin Ollman

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Over the last few weeks, Adobe has been roadshowing it’s new Marketing Cloud offering which brings together 5 different analytics dashboards into a single management platform: it’s big on tracking and analytics, offering some Digital Asset Management and predictive capabilities. If they can get it to talk to Creative Cloud, it’s going to be fairly powerful for agencies where creatives and strategist and producers are already talking. (Just cos the software is integrated doesn’t mean the teams using the software are).

Adobe’s move came hot on the heels of SalesForce’s identically-named Marketing Cloud (maybe these guys could use some marketing themselves?) which appears to be social-media monitoring (their recent Radian6 acquisition) layered onto the one-push distribution platform of BuddyMedia. Similarly, the value proposition is insights-from-data, the model is pay-as-you-go and the experience is dashboard-heavy. Initial reviews were mixed for Adobe, slightly more positive for Salesforce.

In a truly software-inspired move, Shift shift.com has also entered the fray as an open-source marketing integration platform at a distinctly lower price point (read: free). This Venturebeat report lays out the basics, but it essentially draws together data from a host of specialist platforms into one uber-dashboard “somewhat analogous to Facebook’s social graph… sort of like Facebook for your marketing campaign.”

‘The Process’ as Operating System

These marketing cloud services seem to be pitched at advertisers – the marketing departments of businesses that actually sell stuff. This is inherently dangerous for agencies: if clients start to confidently handle their own execution, using platforms that automate and automagically improve performance, what the hell do agencies do?

What they should be doing, I believe, is to remain focussed on the strategic and creative thinking that is the heart of every good campaign, while simultaneously getting skilled up on these new ‘tools of execution’.

What does your Agency run on?

Image by Martin Ollman

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Where I think some of these cloud services could ultimately be very useful is as the Operating System of Agencies. I forsee a time where smaller agencies can start approaching larger clients, offering the bespoke thinking that agencies are really good at, with the flawless execution that, quite frankly, they are uniformly not.

For these cloud-based vendors, smaller (and maybe mid-size as well) agencies represent a whole new class of re-seller. An ecosystem of trained, certified and supported agencies, developing creative solutions and executing them via a sophisticated delivery platform could radically re-shape agency-land outside of the holding-company-conglomerate-networks. ‘Powered by SalesForce’ or ‘Adobe Cloud-Certified’ could be the ‘Authorised Dealer’ of the agency world. Any bets on how long it will take Google, Facebook and perhaps Amazon to start building/buying/rolling out their version of an Agency OS?

Interestingly, a few Agency infrastructure items washed up in my feeds while I was writing this: ViaMark in the states has re-launched it’s ‘Agency franchise’ model after mothballing it for a few years during the financial crisis, offering to standardise the back-end functions of billings and media booking for small local agencies; at the other end of the spectrum, this AdExchanger interview with Tim Hanlon suggests that mega Agency groups (like the upcoming Publicis-Omnicom merger) will need to arrange themselves as an ‘Agency Stack’ to remain relevant. If this recent attempt by Publicis to mandate Lotus Notes as their email infrastructure is anything to go by, there’s still work to be done. 

And now I have a question for all the senior-level big-agency dreamers out there: would you be more likely to consider starting your own agency if you had a pay-per-use OS that handled all the ‘busy work’ while you stayed focussed on the thinking and the clients?

Tweet your answer to @barrieseppings using #agencyOS

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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