Strategy in the Age of Specialization

by John Ounpuu,

As modern marketing grows more complex and specialized, it’s getting harder and harder to hold it all together.

Rising complexity and specialization is driving the full-service agency model into extinction — and leaving many marketing leaders without a single strategic partner who can help them string all the pieces together.

Fun times for CMOs

It’s a fun time to be marketing leader … if this is your idea of fun.

Complexity is on the rise. You’ve got more channels and functions to manage than ever. And news ones are cropping up all the time trying to get your attention.

Real time.

Some of them are not worth your time, but others are too good to pass up. So they’re added to the mix.

And for many brands, more channels means more specialization across the board. Specialization on the internal team. And specialization on your (ever expanding, or at least ever-shifting) agency roster.
And then there’s the technology side of things. Many of the new channels and functions that power your brand are backed by technology. And more than ever, it’s your responsibility to choose and use the right ones.

It’s not an easy task. Especially if (like most marketing leaders) technology isn’t your core strength.

And of course it’s the source of even more complexity and specialization. Because above and beyond your internal team and your agencies, the extended team under your leadership also now likely includes a growing roster of technology partners as well.

It doesn’t stop there.

In fact, it never stops. That’s kind of the point. Instead it just keeps changing. Faster than ever. New channels. New tactics. New technologies. Each with a new wave comes with a new array of specialists.

Like I said … fun!

Meanwhile in Agency-Land

I come from the agency world and I can tell you — all this complexity is causing changes and challenges on that side as well.

The most obvious trend: the vision/fantasy of being truly “full-service" is growing more difficult and less attainable every day.

Some are making valiant efforts through acquisitions, high profile hires, and other means. But more and more clients are losing patience with the pretence.

“I wish sometimes that the agencies would stick to what they are good at. You can’t do everything, and if you try to do everything, you do nothing. It drives me crazy when the agency is trying to pitch you every single service available.
—An anonymous brand executive vents to Digiday

Instead of a single full-service partner, more clients are opting for some mix of strategic new hires (insourcing), multiple specialist agencies and multiple tech vendors.

This new model makes sense on paper. No question. And many specialists can indeed turn their specialized knowledge into truly great, truly impactful work.
But in practice, the new specialist-heavy model also brings with it a new set of challenges.

New CMO woes

You’re a modern CMO. Fed up with too many promises, you’ve jettisoned your AOR. Or maybe you’ve just demoted them. Added them to a growing list of specialist executors you can count on to do one or two things really, really well.

Things are better in many ways, but there are some new cracks forming. Let’s imagine a few of them.

    • The brand is slipping out of the drivers seat: Not surprisingly, a channel-centric model yields channel-centric thinking. Which means that if you’re not careful, the brand experience can become disjointed and fragmented.
    • Customer experience inconsistencies: Speaking of disjointed, more players on a wider field means more silo-ed decision making. And that doesn’t bode well for a unified (call it “omnichannel" if you like) brand experience.
    • Prioritization and decision-making is difficult: Which part of the giant motor should get the most oil next fiscal? Ask ten different team members and you might get ten different answers.
    • Orchestration is hard, too: You’ve got all the instruments in place, but trying to get them to play the same song at the same time ain’t easy. Never mind actually sounding good.
    • The model is more agile in some ways, less agile in others: Individual channels can pivot quickly and respond to changing customer needs. But the whole machine is bigger, more complex and harder to manoeuvre. Bad news, when change is the only constant.
    “We need to find ways to lead with brands and not channels.We need to find ways to orchestrate an integrated approach."— Unilever CMO Keith Weed, speaking at Cannes 2014

    All of this adds up to more pressure at the top, at the marketing leadership level. More pressure to stay nimble. To keep pace with shifting consumer habits and expectations. More pressure to make the right technology decisions for today and tomorrow — not just the right tools for each channel, but the right integrated tool set across the whole mix. And more pressure to orchestrate the disparate pieces to deliver a great brand experience, and protect the brand from fragmentation.

    That’s a lot of pressure.

    And to make matters worse, in the face of all of this pressure, marketing leaders actually have less help than ever figuring out how all of these pieces add up to something that really works.

    A missing piece

    As the agency roster has grown and become fragmented, and much of the thinking and planning has moved down the chain to each of the channels, that place at the CMO’s right hand — the place where holistic, brand-level envisioning and planning happens — has often been left empty.

    The result — marketing leaders have less help than ever. And the job they’re doing is more difficult and complicated than ever. Not a pretty picture:

    harder job + less help = ☹

    Something is missing. But what does the missing piece look like, exactly? To my mind, this new breed of strategic partner would need to be able to assist the CMO in envisioning, creating and evolving the complete marketing machine, creating a whole that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts.

    So let’s think about the defining traits that this partner would need to possess . . .

    A big picture POV
    They would need a good strong generalist’s understanding of what each piece of the marketing machine should be doing, and how all the pieces can work together. And an ability to break down silos to make that vision a reality.

    A digital mindset
    A deep understanding of how digital brand-building works, grounded in first-hand experience, from data to social to mobile and beyond.

    Solid technical chops
    An equally deep grasp of the tools and technologies that can power and propel modern brands — and how they can work together to create a great brand experience.

    A strong grasp of the business
    The ability to put connect the marketing mission to the larger goals and priorities of the business.

    A brand-driven view of the world
    A belief in the power of brand as strategic weapon, creative catalyst and guiding light — a higher power than any channel or tactic.

    A sense of comfort with change and ambiguity
    An appetite for big problems and a willingness to leave old ways of thinking behind and embrace change.

    An immunity to hype
    The ability to resist the magnetic lure of hot trends and enticing bright shiny objects.

    Strategy: the next hot specialization?

    Savvy reader that you are, you may have guessed by now where my conclusion is heading. And you’re right. I am, I admit, the co-founder of a strategy-focused agency that has been built especially to fill this emerging need.

    And I do, in fact, believe that the the team we’ve put together possesses all of the traits I’ve listed above.

    But I also believe that this challenge is real. And much, much bigger than me and my agency (we’re certainly not the only ones equipped to tackle the issue).

    If you don’t believe me, marketing leaders, I suggest you pause right now, turn your head, and look towards your right hand.

    Now tell me honestly — is there anybody there?

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