In the Age of Experience Do We Still Need Agencies?

Closing the gap between experience and advertising has never been more important but where do we start? And what do agencies have to offer clients as they shift focus from ads and websites towards products and services?

As an industry we talk about it constantly, we mis-label what we do and the people who do it. We’re constantly swirling around this amorphous thing that we keep calling user experience. It’s hard to believe that an industry this young could be eroded by something new. But it’s a faster world and doesn’t look like we have the twenty years it took to chip away at traditional models before we are going to require another fundamental change. This focus on experience is so much more than a trend and needs to be seen for what it is; a polar shift for everyone, both above and below the line and really across all business.

Everything good that a company does, from it’s advertising to the way it defines it’s products and services is trying to do one simple thing: find gaps where there’s room to create something new. The spread of ideas has accelerated so much that these unique angles are increasingly harder to find. As more and more information, ads and messages continue to flood markets everywhere the law of decreasing returns is having an effect on how those messages are seen. All this is happening just as people are finding more ways to tune them out.

Agencies have responded by trying to do and sell everything. Everybody wants to be the one-stop-shop and they are usually wrapping that up with a title like experience design. The thing about experience is it’s not advertising. It’s not an app or a message or a poster. It’s not even a commercial or an interactive multi-sensory whatever. Sure you can experience these things, but ultimately what we refer to as experience isn’t anything specific by definition. It’s what people walk away from your brand with. It’s an impression based on the reality of dealing with your company and that’s a hard thing to sell.

You used to be able to do so much to differentiate your brand through voice and tone, and to some degree this will always work. But in so many cases the messaging and even presentation of a brand has been stripped back and simplified to compete with so much other messaging and what we’re ending up with is brands that are all sort of the same. Everyone want’s to be apple. White with clean product shots and simple punchy text but when everyone does this what else is there to make you stand apart from everyone else?

The answer is really experience: a back to basics approach that demands doing better for customers and clients. It’s ironic that all this technology and advancement have led right back to where we started when capitalism was invented. People want to talk to people and deal with companies that provide smart, personal services and products. Companies and products that fit into their lives and help people. In a world where people empower themselves through their friends and the internet, it’s the only way to create strong, lasting brands that people are interested in and talk about. It’s advertising that does the work for you and it’s only channel is people.

In the long run it’s both good for brands and people. In the short term however you will see more companies focused only on experience like Uber and Airbnb that will topple the long established giants. Experience is the engine that will start to make companies more aware of what people want and make them invest in giving it to them.

The question i keep asking: where do agencies fit into this new world? If experience is a company solving problems for their own business and servicing their customers better. If the world is heading more towards services, tools and products and away from positioning, websites and ads, how do agencies step up to the plate and play the game at all?

I’ve seen the trend repeat itself again and again. Agencies are amazing ideas engines but once it gets to delivering across a complex ecosystem it just makes sense to do it in house because changing “experience” is a difficult and long task.

Everyone uses words like partnership and collaboration, but most companies aren’t truly that that with their agency, not in the way that’s needed to help both sides. The solution is actually inside the problem already. Agencies need to change the experience they give their customers. Building strong, trusted relationships that go beyond just providing a service is the only way to have the right conversations.

It’s a two sided coin. All companies need to make sure the right people are in the right room at the right time to have some hard conversations. There is so much great work and thinking that falls on deaf ears when it’s heard by someone who isn’t empowered or interested in affecting serious change. The “business as usual” manager will never help a company update for the world we are going to live in around the bend.

Marty Neumeier writes about the power of a metateam. A team of teams, made up of specialists focused on delivering a creative goal. That doesn’t go far enough though until the client is integrated into it as well. A team of teams made up of specialists empowered to deliver something real. That’s the important difference. There is a lot of talk about rapid prototyping and hack-a-thons but even when these are done well these things often work independently of a client or a problem to solve. They are a great way of inventing something but not the right thing. The agile process that everybody sees as the way to fix this has the opposite problem, it’s focused on fixing problems and ignores the experience and goal. The faster we integrate with our clients both in goals and technology the sooner we build towards something real (and real fast). The way the world is going it demands businesses and agencies change and only those willing to speed up and deliver on great experience will survive.

Agencies have one great power. They can look at a company objectively and then work towards making it more effective in what it does or says. They can do it outside of politics and long established processes. They can be disruptors, challengers and ultimately do amazing work for companies that can’t do it on their own. But they can’t succeed without companies looking to adapt to the changing world. Companies need to be ready to change and be challenged. These are the briefs agencies need to do their best work and help the most. The biggest challenge in closing the experience gap is closing this distance between a company and their agency. Hopefully more companies on both sides are up for the challenge.

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