Many marketers considering agency shakeup: WFA study

A turbulent few years with new and increased pressures for change have left many marketers unhappy with their agency lineup and thinking about change, according to a new study published for the World Federation of Advertisers.

The study, “Agency Roster Transformation,” was conducted by consultants The Observatory International, and focuses on how marketers are working with their various agencies. They found fully 75% of marketers were only “somewhat satisfied” or worse with their agencies (just 21% said very satisfied and 4% said extremely satisfied), and 69% have recently made, or plan to make, changes to their agency roster.

“There are many reasons why rosters need to be updated. Sometimes existing structures don’t work due to internal issues at the advertiser end,” said Julia Kraft, senior manager, global marketing services with WFA. “The accelerating rate of change in consumer behaviour and digital usage makes it highly likely, however, that most rosters are heading for a period of constant evolution as brands seek new ways to be more effective with their marketing communications.”

The researchers were dealing with very large and usually global corporations, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and working with up to 25 different agencies across disciplines. But the challenges they are dealing with will be familiar to most marketers: The pandemic leading to changing consumer patterns and new journeys, the ongoing shift to digital everything, and increased interest in diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as sustainability/the environment.

One unmistakable trend in the findings is the growth in in-house agencies. Two years ago, when WFA last asked members about in-housing, just 57% said they had an in-house agency. In the new survey that had risen to 80%, with another 13% considering it.

Respondents cited cost savings, improved speed, and increased productivity as the top three reasons for in-housing (see the full list in chart.)

European dairy foods giant Arla, for example, has adopted an entirely in-house model.  “We have moved to an in-house model in order to bring media and creative closer together and secure a stronger learning loop in our campaigns based on the data we collect,” Thomas Heilskov, Arla’s global head of digital marketing and in-house agency The Barn, told researchers. “Channel-led creativity is becoming more and more important, and we have seen very impressive results so far.”

According to WFA, increased in-housing will require brand leaders to revise the scope of work for other agency partners, and additional focus on working processes to “ensure effective collaboration.”

Some of the other forces for change identified by the authors were:

Covid-19: While only 20% of respondents made changes to their agencies specifically due to the Covid, the pandemic “acted as an accelerant to digital evolution.” Consequently, most (73%)  of those who did make agency changes, did so to improve their digital capabilities.

Sustainability: “Clients waking up to the fact that duplication of agency resources not only has an effect on the bottom line, but also on the planet,” wrote the study authors. However, just 34% of WFA members said “sustainability considerations were always applied to the agency selection process.” But that will change in the future, say the authors. Already, 38% have defined sustainability targets, and another 44% are working on them. Last year, WFA launched its Planet Pledge to provide a framework for marketers to be more sustainable. So far, 25 members have signed on, including giants like Unilever, Diageo and Telefonica.

DE&I: Even fewer respondents (22%) said DE&I considerations were part of the agency selection process. “Only 31% of survey respondents said that people from diverse backgrounds were ‘usually’ or ‘always’ included in their briefing processes, and that dropped to 25% when it came to executing the brief,” they wrote.  Here too, however, they stressed that does not mean a lack of interest. For example, 31% of respondents already have defined targets for diversity, and another 53% are working on them.

David Brown