This post was originally published on Medium on December 23, 2019
Full disclaimer: I d̵i̵s̵l̵i̵k̵e̵ LOATHE agencies! I’m firmly in the camp of in-house, agile and most importantly being efficient — which in my book is equal parts speed and effectiveness. In my opinion, working with an agency runs counter to these philosophies. I’ve long held the belief that agency partnerships are costly, opaque and time-consuming, resulting in an imbalanced ratio of effort to output.
Now I will make two concessions. First, my past experiences have influenced my thinking towards agencies. Secondly, and therefore, I fully realize I must get out of my own way and challenge my thinking. With that being said, rather than shying away from what I perceive as a major problem in our industry, we chose to attack it head-on at Kambr by building our own in-house agency.
We’re challenging what the agency of both today and tomorrow should be and bilaterally, how we market the brands of now. I believe this new iteration of marketing and agency partnerships lies at the intersection of media, commerce, and work.
The Working Landscape is Changing
It’s always best to start right at the heart of the matter. And for this discussion — whether agency-side or client-side — the beating heart is work itself. You cannot discuss partnerships, frameworks or the like, without considering how we as professionals actually do our jobs. And this is a paradigm that will change significantly in the coming decades, with clear signs already appearing now. And quite honestly cannot happen soon enough.
How’s this for a kicker? According to the Harvard Business Review, “the eight-hour workday harkens back to 19-century socialism. When there was no upper limit to the hours that organizations could demand of factory workers, and the industrial revolution saw children as young as six-years-old working the coal mines, American labor unions fought hard to instill a 40-hour workweek, eventually ratifying it as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.”
That’s right! We’re structuring our work around a concept implemented during Henry Ford and the Assembly Line!!!!! This is absolutely insane! The world and the technologies within it have gone through a cataclysmic evolution, yet we have not significantly changed our approach to work in 80 years. Seriously… take a minute and let that sink in!
Fortunately, we’re already seeing strides taken in the realms of distributed companies, remote work and rising levels of freelancers. Our traditional sense of what we know as work — commuting to the office every day to work a 9 to 5 for one employer — will be challenged in the coming decades.
We’re trending toward what’s known as the Open Talent Economy, a collaborative, technology-driven, rapid-cycle way of doing business made up of a mixture of contractors, full-time workers, and freelancers. In about a decade’s time, about half of the U.S. population will be freelancing, there’s been a 115 percent increase in the number of remote jobs being offered, and a number of distributed companies have popped up including InVision, Buffer, GitHub, Stack and Product Hunt.
However, the biggest thought leader in distributed work is Automattic’s (parent company of WordPress) founder Matt Mullenweg. His company is made up of 850-plus employees who are scattered in 69 countries around the globe.
“Why should we constrain ourselves to only hire people that either live in or can commute within a 70-mile distance of the headquarters. That’s silly,” says Mulenweg. “That is a geographic filter which takes out the vast majority of the talent and intelligence in the world. We can do better.”
With this point, Mullenweg hits the nail squarely on its head, especially for an agency. It used to be if you were involved with media and/or advertising you had to be in London, New York or more recently the Bay Area.
However as big brands and big media loosens their grip on our mindshare (more on this in the following section), so does the need to be attached to a particular epicenter. So why not hire the best strategic and creative talent you can instead of confining your business to a specific geographic location?
Although the (current) nucleus of our agency team is in Amsterdam, we have parts of our team distributed globally. For instance, a developer based in Minnesota and an intern based in Moscow, while we’re currently servicing clients across the globe from the United States to New Zealand. And if we look at Kambr as a whole, we find ourselves with colleagues across various locations in the U.S., Europe, South America and soon to be Asia.
And even for those of us based in Amsterdam, we leverage our remote working nature to commute less, work from a different location or simply work flexible non-traditional hours, so we can plan our work around our lives instead our lives around our work. Our agile workflow facilitates this manner in which we run our business (more on that in a future post).
And not only is this new form of distributed work good for attracting talent, it’s also beneficial for the performance of that talent. A study carried out by C-Trip and Stanford University divided 503 call center employees in half: one group worked from home four days out of five per week, and the other half worked full-time at the office. After nine months, the remote working group saw an increase of 13% in performance and 9% in their overall work calling time compared to the office group.
Rather than one homogeneous in-house workforce, a team as we will come to know it will actually be a number of extensions tethered together to achieve a common cause. The concept of team will come to encompass employees, consultants, freelancers, agencies and the like. This will undoubtedly challenge how we define efficiency, collaboration, and partnerships.
This will also shape what an agency is and its positioning with its clients. The future agency is a collective of distributed strategists, creatives, doers and makers who stretch the globe to provide an unheralded degree and depth of specialized talent. The focus will shift from offices on Madison Avenue and yachts at Cannes to inclusion and breaking down borders so agencies can source the best global talent and provide the best work for their clients.
The result will be an overall better relationship between agency and client. Distributed work will make agencies better at servicing clients and clients better at managing remote agency partnerships.
The Interconnectedness of Media & Commerce — What Marketing is Has Changed Significantly
Now that we have a clear understanding of how to build an agency and workforce of the future, let’s shift our attention to how the media — and by extension — commerce landscape is changing as it has a direct relationship to marketing itself. In what is an epic piece of content (and something I’ll be referencing quite a bit from here on out), David Perell’s What the Hell is Going?, precisely lays out the symbiotic relationship between commerce and media and how this relationship has shifted in recent times.
In short, Perell writes, “in the past decade, the information environment has inverted from information scarcity to information abundance, and the effects are evident in every corner of society.”
What this means in our world is that the traditional methods of branding, content creation, marketing, and advertising no longer work. Brands, which used to be mass-produced, are now micro-targeted to highly segmented groups of consumers.
This has given way to what Scott Belsky, the Chief Product Officer of Adobe’s Creative Cloud refers to as microbrands.
“This mass of microbrands with massively efficient marketing are, in aggregate, having a much bigger impact than anyone thinks. Using hyper-targeted marketing, just-in-time manufacturing, and social media, these brands find and engage their audience wherever they may be.”
Perell writes “advertising executives [of these brands] prefer efficient, micro-targeted, easy-to-measure advertisements over the entertaining, mass-appeal, hard-to-measure campaigns the world’s largest advertising agencies specialize in.” And this is precisely the spot where today’s agencies need to carve out their niche and prosper. A supreme opportunity exists to uproot the large incumbents and shake up the scene for the better.
Driving home this point even further Perell emphatically writes, “Mass Media advertising, the weapon of choice for America’s biggest companies, isn’t as effective as it once was. Big brands are losing share of America’s GDP pie. Small brands are like the Phoenix, rising out of their ashes. Birthed by the seeds of low startup costs, infinite digital shelf space, and hyper-targeted advertising, direct-to-consumer companies with strong brand identities and hyper-efficient ad targeting are unbundling big retail brands.”
From this, we can more directly flesh out some of the attributes and focal points that should be possessed by an agency. The basis is and always has been establishing a firm brand foundation. However, how it’s done now has shifted dramatically from being the biggest media spender to establishing authenticity through genuine storytelling.
At this crux of content lies another symbiotic relationship. That of creation and distribution where the end consumer should always be held in the highest regard.
And the answer why? That’s simple. Because the power has shifted. It’s now consumers who are in charge instead of distributors of products and purveyors of media. “By creating unlimited shelf space and reducing information asymmetries, power in the internet age is shifting from suppliers to customers,” writes Perell. “Since every customer can share positive and negative experiences on the internet, brands have an incentive to treat every customer with care and respect. Reputation is now public and quantified. The long term matters more than it used to.”
We’ve taken this to heart at Kambr in not only the way we approach client work but also how we conduct our own marketing. Aside from the official launch of the Kambr brand (which can read the creation of here), we haven’t talked much about ourselves but instead have elected to cover the commercial aviation industry as a whole with the independently run Kambr Media. This has enabled us to provide coverage in a content white space while developing, shaping and fortifying relationships we wouldn’t otherwise have through traditional means of marketing and sales.
An Agency Should Stand for Something — Find Your Flavor
If an agency is tasked with building authentic brands and stories, the agency itself ought to stand for something. Too often agencies (and a number of brands for that matter), get caught casting their nets far too wide in an effort to capture large market caps, endless prospects, and simply just don’t understand their place in a vast clouded ecosystem.
Seventy-nine percent of business leaders surveyed by PwC believe that an organization’s purpose is central to business success. While on the consumer side, data shows that customers view purpose-driven brands as being more caring and, as a result, are more loyal to them.
Now I’m not just saying you need to pigeon-hole yourself into a cramped vertical, giving yourself limited opportunities. Actually, I firmly believe a great strategy, approach and set of skills can be rolled out to be successful for a number of verticals, products, and services.
However, an agency — just like the clients it represents — must find its unique selling point. After all, if you’re going to compete against the large traditional one-size-fits-all agencies you’re rallying against you cannot be like them. You need to present something different. If you’re going to land the micro-brands of today, you need to be a micro-agency — both in skills and positioning.
“Given how the nature of brands has changed, the value of clear brand identity is in greater demand amid a sea of endless, instant choice,” says David Kaplan, former editor/reporter at AdExchanger, MediaPost and Ad Age and current Editor-in-Chief at Kambr Media. “At the same time, brand messaging needs to be also more narrowly targeted as opposed to appealing to an amorphous mass that may not even exist anymore.”
Listen, everyone kind of likes vanilla ice cream (or at the very least tolerates it). But almost no one loves vanilla ice cream. If you’re going to attract your ideal client, you’re going to have to position yourself for them, and in turn, alienate others.
Todd Cadley, President & CMO of Brooklyn-based marketing agency Manual Labor puts it best.
“Don’t chase bad money. Our mission is, ‘do great work with good people.’ We’ve turned down and will continue to turn down work because the fit wasn’t there.”
This approach and ability to stick to their values is precisely why Manual Labor has been able to carve out success and grow exponentially. They’ve found their flavor and aligned with customers who enjoy that flavor.
Most people might not like Rocky Road ice cream, but the people who do, LOVE Rocky Road ice cream. And this is how you establish your own tribe today. By living somewhere along the long tail. You might not be for most people, but for the ones you do vibe with, you’ll establish an ironclad connection. This philosophy applies equally to agencies and brands alike.
We’ve experienced this effect firsthand at Kambr. By sourcing our agency to external clients we’ve been able to not only turn our marketing department into a revenue driver instead of a cost but also have reaped strategic benefits by establishing and strengthening key relationships. Some of our agency clients include investors, partners and current or potential clients for other branches of Kambr.
While on the topic, there is something that every agency must stand for — and is certainly not up for debate — inclusiveness and equality. I’ve seen this first-hand spending most of my career in the tech sector, and it’s been a problem well documented in the agency space as well, but there is still a huge racial and gender gap in these two worlds. There’s a lot of talk about diversity, but the needle is still moving too slowly.
We discussed attracting the best talent without being constrained to geographical limitations, but we must also not be limited by our own thinking and pre-existing biases. In order to attract the best talent, that talent must come from a diverse talent pool, stemming from all walks of life. Especially when it comes to creative work so much can be gained from bringing varying backgrounds and views together to achieve unthinkable outcomes.
We’re proud to say our agency is an eclectic group predominantly made up of women, each with her own distinct background. Our differences has become our uniqueness and helped us to tackle challenges with uncommon approaches, fostering a level of creativity and execution that simply cannot be achieved by a uniform group of individuals.
As we look ahead to 2020, we’re ambitiously doubling down on everything laid out here: growing our team wider and deeper and more diverse, strengthening key relationships, using the foundation we established to increase organizational efficiency and execution while fine-tuning our own positioning and approach.