What actually is a marketing communications agency? Is it possible to tell these days? Does it matter? Does anyone really care?!
The reason I’m asking these questions is that I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time, earlier this last month, pouring over the data from our 2012 Marcomms Agencies Survey writing the analysis for our annual Benchmarking Report and League Tables.
This always throws up a number of questions and controversies… many of which will become apparent when you look at the League Table! But one of the perennial issues is “Who should qualify for inclusion?” This question is becoming more and more difficult to resolve.
Back in the old days, it was easy: marketing communications agencies produced DM and adverts, and that was pretty much it. If you were a client who wanted data, PR or telemarketing, you went to a specialist, and if you were really down with the kids and were doing all that whizzy “internet” stuff, you found some geek with dark clothes and minimal people skills (and sometimes personal hygiene standards).
These days, however, it’s changed fundamentally. Obviously the web is now key to everyone’s business, and any good marcomms agency worth its salt has a web specialism and will happily do so in a much more customer friendly way than before (meaning that customer experience has improved, if not the standards of personal hygiene). But more profoundly than that, the barriers between other specialisms are coming down, and it is becoming really hard to draw any clear-cut lines between what is and what isn’t marketing communications.
Sure, there have always been traditional ‘marcomms’ agencies who have offered PR or even telemarking on the side, but these days with disciplines like social media, content marketing and demand generation mean boundaries are very blurred. And as an aside, from my perspective, it often seem more about the good PR agencies are moving into domains previously occupied by the marcomms shops rather than the other way around.
And if that were not enough, the role of technology in marketing is also driving transformation in entirely different way. If automation of marketing is the future, as many people believe, its increasingly looking very different to old-style marketing communications – and it will require a very different type of agency to facilitate it, working in a very different way. What does different mean? Instead of period, seasonal marketing ‘events’ supported by physical marketing activities such as DM or events, it means ‘drip-and-splash’ marketing going on constantly in the background, enabled by technology, driving content, and linking in to sales. The role of the agency may become less about devising amazing creative concepts and more about building the new technological infrastructure and creating the content to feed this machine.
So, back to my question: in 2012, what exactly is a marketing communications agency? And what types of agencies should be included in the Agency League Table? Before you say: “it’s obvious – just let anyone in,” that’s a non-starter. You’ll very quickly start comparing apples with pears, and even today a pure-play telemarketing agency is very different to an integrated communications agency, and cannot realistically be measured in the same survey. There have to be some barriers. But where are they? Undoubtedly definitions will have to change, and terminology is outdated. However, I’ve looked for an alternative and not found an easy or obvious one. But perhaps you have: if so, don’t hesitate to tell me what it is.