What Do Advertising Agencies Need To Do To Thrive In 2012?

Chairman of Razorfish, Clark Kokich, addresses the problems facing agencies today.

As chairman of Razorfish, Clark Kokich is deeply immersed in the bigger picture of where agency practitioners need to be focusing their energy. We featured him in a post last year that looked at the changing role of leadership at agencies.

In his latest book-app, Do or Die, he offers guidance and advice to marketers and advertising practitioners. For this interview, we were interested in probing his thinking about the ad business and where it needs to go.

What are the major problems haunting agencies today?

To me, the biggest challenge facing all agencies, whether traditional or digital, is to do work that matters to the CEO and the board of directors of their clients. There’s a reason CMO’s have such short life spans. They’re often not seen as contributing to the growth agenda of the company. There’s a lot of focus on branding, advertising, and promotion, but not enough focus on solving real business problems.

In the past, there wasn’t much an agency could do to contribute beyond those limited areas. But digital transformation now can and should be at the heart of business transformation. Agencies have a deep understanding of how digital media is changing the lives of consumers. We need to take that insight and teach our clients how digital can change the lives of their brands.

What are agencies doing right? What do they need to do more of?

There have been a lot of truly innovative ideas in new media, including social, mobile, gaming, and other emerging platforms. You see new great ideas all the time coming from both traditional and digital agencies.

What you don’t see enough of is big ideas that cross platforms, that drive the business forward, and that have legs – forming the cornerstone of a durable long-term strategy. Too many one-offs and that has to change or clients will start to think we’re all just goofing around trying out fun new things. It’s a prescription for quickly becoming irrelevant.

Why do you juxtapose ‘doing things’ with ‘advertising’? What types of questions should an agency ask itself in order to be ‘doing something’?

The biggest change is to do more than storytelling. Storytelling is still important, but it’s not enough. The best question I think you can ask is, “What do our customers hate about our category, and can we use digital tools to fix it?” When you ask that question, the work ends up looking more like product development than marketing communications. That’s what I mean by “doing things.” Don’t talk about things, instead do things that matter to customers. If you do, they’ll tell other.

In the past, the entire agency discipline was primarily based on learning what your customers liked about your brand and telling others. Now it’s also about learning what customers don’t like and fixing it. This is a very big change, not only for traditional agencies, but for digital agencies as well.

Part of Do or Die is the thought leader interviews; what was the criteria for choosing these individuals? How do they compliment your own thinking and your main text?

First of all, I asked people who were friends, so I was pretty sure they would say yes. But more importantly, I was looking for a broad cross-section of people: traditional, digital, big companies, small companies, clients, agencies, and media. I also knew this group of people would say exactly what they meant, no holds barred. Personally, I found these interviews to be an incredible learning experience. At the very least, you can find more great sound bites here than just about anywhere else you look.

What is a trend that all agencies should embrace in 2012 in order to thrive?

The hardest thing to do, and I think the most important, is for agency leaders to unlearn everything we’ve been taught over the years. It’s very hard for people my age to admit they don’t know anything.

Fact is, when I was young, I asked older people for advice. Now I’m old, and I ask younger people for advice. Our role as leaders is no longer to be the experts. Our job is to be the chief interrogator – to prod and push our teams to rethink everything we thought we knew about marketing, advertising, and product development, and especially about how we are organized to attack these problems. It makes a lot of folks very uncomfortable. It’s disconcerting to have to discard everything that go you here. But I do think it’s essential. While you’re hanging on to the past, someone else is out there plotting to steal your future.

Thanks Clark!
Do or Die

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