A focus on performance marketing carries risks for agency working cultures as well as long-term brand growth and it’s time to address the issue, says UM’s Chris Skinner.

It’s an exciting time to be a consumer. We can get almost everything we want when we want it.  Amazon, the retailer many consider at the heart of this transformation, reported net sales up 22% in 2021 and it has become a major technology brand in its own right.

The media sector is equally blessed. On top of amazing people, our access to data and technology through services like Acxiom enable agencies to reach the right people and also to close the sale in real time. It’s the marketer’s dream.

Of course, that means we’re under enormous pressure to not only deliver ever-increasing growth, but also to ensure we measure and make accountable everything we do across the media landscape.

There is both great challenge and great opportunity in helping companies drive sales and influence culture and communities. And it brings us back to one of the oldest debates in our industry – short-term versus long-term thinking.

It’s a cultural thing

We all agree marketers need to find the balance between near-term sales value and longer-term brand building. It’s certainly been written and spoken about enough times. 

Agencies have tended to structure their businesses around the sales goals of clients. This means we need to spend a lot of time ensuring we don’t get sucked into an ever-widening maelstrom of non-stop optimisation, without also developing the strategies that create sustainable growth over time for the brands in our care.

Not to mention that building that strategic long-term view means our people can find time to think and create ideas and ways of working that drive success – the things they love to do.

However, the ‘need for speed’ is something we have to embrace, though agencies have to balance this whilst also remaining aware of the stress it can put on our people.

Quick-win performance marketing, driven by data rather than human insight and creativity, can lead to greater pressures at a time when teams are already trying to get to grips with new skills. And this has very real risks: denying our top talent the job fulfilment they need at a time when the industry is already facing a serious recruitment crisis.

The short-term focus therefore becomes as much a working culture issue as a brand growth one.

The short-term focus is as much an issue of working culture as brand growth.

Find the balance

So how do we approach this challenge and ensure we can move at pace, keep our talent and drive sales, whilst also instilling long-term growth solutions?

On the one hand, it’s about structure. Agency teams need to be balanced and constructed with the right mixture of generalists and specialists: imagine a T-shape where the client leadership team has the dedicated focus, but also has access to bespoke specialism – including people from outside the ‘media bubble’ – in fields like e-commerce, strategy and performance marketing.

On the other hand, we need to ensure we have the right real-time data – information that can provide teams with the navigation and insights to plan and activate media better.

It has to be driven by data analysts who sit at the centre, utilising project management technology to ensure processes are followed systematically. Automating those processes and the laborious work will open up more time for teams to focus on other key elements of the job – the creativity and the long-term, insight-led planning.

Finally, and perhaps critically, it’s a question of building a better, brighter internal culture. Agencies will have to ensure our teams are highly trained, are continually developing, share a common purpose and have clear open communications and support. That allows us to ensure there is ‘joy’ in what we do and how we behave as a business.

Get this right and we can manage the stress and balance short- and long-term brand and business needs. After all, people are looking for faster and more seamless ways to purchase and the move to a digital-first market grows every day. The changing landscape will enable us to build in technology-led approaches that will open up time for staff to focus on those elements of the job that are most interesting and can really drive business performance to a higher level.

The sector may currently be in a transition state, but it promises to become a more interesting place as we find that balance. Most importantly, this way our industry can ensure that our people still enjoy what they do and have the tools and technology to work with real agility.