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The right time for agencies to regain the role of brand custodian

Budgets under siege, brands challenged by all manner of outside forces as well as internal market pressures.....2013 might seem a strange time to launch a new marketing agency.

Debbie Simmons: chairman of Incahoots

Debbie Simmons: chairman of Incahoots

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In fact, for the past year, I have been arguing the opposite – a view vindicated by the recent ‘Back to Creativity’ report which showed that half of UK marketers admit to being dependent on third-party agencies.

There’s no question that this is a challenging era for marketers on both sides of the client/agency fence. Tough times force brands to define themselves more sharply and forge a more insightful connection with consumers. But increased workloads and market demands, compounded by staffing and budget cuts, have left marketing professionals stretched to breaking point.

It’s not surprising that they need good, sharp-thinking agencies more than ever before – and the newest, nimblest agencies are setting the strategic marketing pace, using their skills and insight to connect with consumers and change behaviour.

At a time of enormous social and economic change, marketing can play an important role both in tackling social issues and in stimulating the economy – providing it is done in a way that really understands the issues facing brands and consumers, and the touchpoints between the two.

It is often said that the recession of the early 1990s gave clients the opportunity to "reclaim" the custodianship of the brand from agencies that had grown greedy, the chance to regain the upper hand and become master of the client/agency relationship. The current economic problems seem to be having the opposite effect.

Today, as the ‘Back to Creativity’ report illustrates, hard-pressed marketers need agencies to act as partners, as part of the brand team. The most effective and entrepreneurial agencies now work collaboratively with clients to effect a real difference in customer behaviour.

Brands from financial services to FMCG are wrestling with enormous trust issues and need to market themselves in a new, empathetic way that will restore trust and confidence. On the high street, even some of the best-loved household-name retailers have fallen by the wayside. Marketing communicators need to consider radical new ways to restore confidence in the retail experience.

New agencies, those which approach the communications task without bias or inhibition, are in the best position to understand and change consumer behaviour.

Agencies which have grown up in the era of new technology understand social media and the opportunities (and threats) it presents for brands – and they now have the greatest chance in a generation to re-establish themselves as brand custodians.

Of course, history shows us that, if the proposition is good enough, "now" has always been the right time to start – or join – a new agency. In the 19th century, JWT was launched amid the economic gloom of civil war. In the 20th century, HHCL opened its doors just as the worldwide stock market crashed spectacularly in October 1987. Both changed the way that brands communicated with consumers, both set the tone for their respective generations of marketers.

The 21st century economic pressures of 2013 form the perfect backdrop for another new era of brave new agencies. For anyone who has ever yearned to be a marketing entrepreneur, to create a new agency with a new way of working....now is the perfect time.

Debbie Simmons is chairman of Incahoots

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