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Keep the change

Ashraf Engineer

George Bernard Shaw had this to say about communication, and I believe it holds equally good for change: The single biggest problem with it is the illusion that it has taken place.

The nature of strategic communication is transforming fast and, therefore, so is what clients require from agencies. Everybody concerned has understood this and invested in adapting to it. But, I fear, it’s not enough.

It’s not just a question of acquiring modern skills such as digital and data; I’m questioning the model itself. While many global networks have tried to keep pace by buying agencies with the right skills, perhaps the industry is moving too fast to stick with that approach.

So, while the basics of communication remain the same, how you act upon them is the key to the change.

The trigger for all this pondering was a forward doing the rounds a few months ago: Uber, the world’s largest taxi firm, owns no vehicles; Facebook, among the world’s largest publishers, produces little content of its own; Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.

What if we were to apply this philosophy to communication consulting?

It could, for instance, mean that the dispersal of duties among various specialised agencies is rethought. Digital duties with one agency, creative with another, public relations with a third… It’s too much to keep track of. Agencies with integrated capabilities have the advantage.

A few months ago, a survey of marketers by RSW/US, a Cincinnati-based consulting firm, found that 59% have consolidated their agencies in the past year and 62% expect this trend to continue.

Similarly, we are seeing new partnerships that marry content with brand consulting: WPP joined the ‘Daily Mail’ and Snapchat to create the Truffle Pig content agency, while Unilever has a content partnership with Vice for its Broadly women’s channel.

Here are a few other factors that I think will be important for communicators – both, consultants and clients – over the next few years:

  • Transparency: Today, it’s ethical practice. But imagine it as a marketing tool. All stakeholders – customers, employees, governments and communities – are demanding it from corporations. They are more powerful than ever before and the pressure on brands is intense. What if brands didn’t fight it? What if they institutionalised it and showed how it has benefited these stakeholders? The result: powerful stories showing real impact.
  • Agnosticism:I’m convinced we’ll witness not just solutions that are channel-agnostic but also consultancies that will provide bespoke solutions to clients, acting at a strategic level and passing on the execution to other agencies. These consultancies will be agency-agnostic too, working with those best suited to the client’s needs. (Pitchfork Partners, of which I am part, is such a consultancy.) You’ve got to be agile too. Clients won’t – and shouldn’t – wait for months to see if the strategy is working. You should be able to tweak your approach instantly.
  • Simplicity: The web of products, regions, stakeholders and business environment is way too complex. Marketing heads are looking to unwind it, catalysing new ideas and engagement. Can your agency help by using data, insights and links with the right partners?
  • Data is big, but why?Big data has become a buzzword, much like social media. We’re going to use it, no doubt, but the larger question is ‘how’. Data usage will have to answer critical questions like what drives the audience, where it is and – most importantly – explain behaviour. Unless data leads to actionable insights, it’s just a lot of unsorted information than will bury your time and money.
  • Prove it: Oh, how we struggle with measurement! The industry has grappled with measurement models and there is certainly no consensus on the way ahead. Guess what, the problem’s not going away. The industry will have to come together to work on it. Again, we’ll need continuous measurement and actionable insights that enable mid-campaign tweaks.

All of this entails the most difficult type of transformation – that of the mindset. Which brings me back to Shaw. We would do well to remember his words: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Ashraf Engineer is principal consultant with Pitchfork Partners, a strategic communication and marketing consultancy. He tweets at @AshrafEngineer

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