“Anyone who tells you they know the right digital strategy for the next five years is lying. My predictions go down with 20% accuracy every year out, and everybody wants a five-year plan.”
Former Chief Digital Officer
The digital future needs to be owned
Technology has evolved. Customers are empowered beyond your ability to market to them in traditional ways. The CMO is investing in software and data science. And yet, the typical agency relationship seems to be status quo. It’s time to stop renting external partner relationships, and start owning your digital future.
It’s hard to overstate the level of change that has happened across the marketing landscape over the last few years. Today‘s digital experiences are more than marketing—they are the essential connections between your business and your customers. This reality fundamentally changes the way organizations invest in capabilities, organize teams, and rely on external partners.
And so you need different kinds of relationships. People who can help you craft and control systems and stories that work together. Partners that help accelerate change while enabling long-term success. The traditional agency model can hold you back. External help is still vital, but the agency you really need is your own: a steadfast internal commitment to take ownership of the experiences you deliver to your customers so that they’re sustainable and authentic.
The Digital Future is different
It was a lot simpler when we were all in the business of making websites and managing channels. Projects had a clear start and stop, and day jobs could be put on hold while new digital structures got built. Agency retainers could keep channels full of content, apps ready to be discovered, and quarterly campaigns refreshed with new creative.
The digital future is different now. We know this. It doesn’t fit neatly into a fixed-bid project or a new full time employee. Digital is a mode of engaging that is more authentic and useful than traditional marketing. It’s rapidly erasing the space between your business and your empowered customers. You know this space well; it’s controlled and comfortable. It’s where lofty, inspired brand promises were made only to get mangled in the complexity of delivering something more than a message. This is the space where the traditional agency relationship lived, and it is fundamentally and forever changed.
Investing in competencies and connected teams
Many businesses, of course, recognize these gaps. The lack of training in new digital skills, missing internal roles, and organizational inability to adapt are routinely cited as key obstacles to digital-led transformation.
The path to long-term sustainable success means investing in new competencies, building centers of excellence, and advancing a more customer-centric culture.
The challenge is that there’s no blueprint for this. While many marketers say they want to reinvent themselves, a much smaller percentage actually know how to go about it.
But we’re seeing this unfold in real time, often times clumsily, but also intentional. From established organizations like Capital One making significant agency talent acquisitions to the New York Times accumulating a 600+ person digital team, organizations are making the intentional investments to start owning their digital future.
The agency relationship isn’t dead. It just needs to evolve.
This of course doesn’t mean the end of external service provider relationships. Quite the opposite. With the pace of change quickening, agencies are needed more than ever to help accelerate change and fill in gaps. But the strategic partnerships need to change for customer-centric organizations.
Your strategic agency partners need to focus on enabling your long-term success in addition to accelerating your short-term needs. These should not be mutually exclusive ideas.
This, however, does run counter to the fundamental agency business model of growing year-over-year revenue per account indefinitely. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, from a service provider perspective. But it’s increasingly the exact opposite “inside-out” model organizations need to thrive in the digital age.
The agency business model must evolve to focus on helping organizations assess the current state and build the necessary internal competencies for long-term success.
Three questions to ask potential agency partners:
- How will you help us understand our gaps and strengthen them over time?
- Are you responsible for making it, or for making it work?
- What does long-term success look like for you, and for us?
The fault lines of the digital shift go beyond marketing—and run right through the boardroom.
The space for business strategies that rely on squeezing out every last drop of value at the expense of the customer is diminishing. Tomorrow’s strategies for growth are about maximizing the creation of value, not extracting it. They require understanding and mapping the overlap between what the customer wants and the business needs. And they will rely on people and systems that must work in harmony to enable the aligned, authentic and immediate responsiveness that is the hallmark of the truly connected organization. This is not something that just one department can deliver on. It requires input from the entire organization, starting at the top.
Some organizations define a Chief Customer Officer, others a Chief Digital Officer. Whatever the title, the role requires a different way of thinking and working. One of the key attributes of these digital change agents is that they are comfortable being uncomfortable. As one put it, “I’d rather be a little uncomfortable all of the time than wrong most of the time.”
Contribution instead of control. Having the humility to put the customer first. Engaging authentically in the moment—these are not things the typical marketing department was built to deliver. But they are the hallmarks of a relevant, contemporary digital organization today.
Successful organizations are tackling this not with more structure, but with better communication. Aligning an organization, inspiring stakeholders to make real business change, and mapping the path to the future is complex stuff. It’s not something that many marketing departments have been built to deliver. We’re all figuring this out together, and learning from a community of peers.
We can work with you to design and build the systems and stories that will form a foundation for better business: more useful, more responsive, more human.
We will work to help you build stronger internal teams, embed new tools and frameworks, and set the organization up for a better, more sustainable future. With you, not for you.
Together, we can build a better business, and help you own your digital future.