Closest to the customer wins

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Ned Russell
Ned Russell

A few weeks back, the Wall Street Journal quoted new Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson, who in a recent meeting with a group of agency executives said that when building customer relationships he preferred not dealing with “intermediaries” (like the group he was meeting with) and instead wanted to be “as close to the customer as possible.”

I expect many agency people bristle at the thought of someone like Thompson telling them to “get out of the way,” but (for an agency person) I have a contrary opinion: I believe his point is that if you are not also reinventing yourself to help him get closer to his customers and create that value, you're in the way of success. Smart agencies could learn a lesson from this, because their long-term success probably lies in the statement “Closest to the customer wins.”

The irony of our business is that opportunity abounds to be closer to customers than ever before. Let's look at example #1A: social media. If, as Bill Bernbach once said, “word-of-mouth is the best medium of all,” today agencies can drive direct conversations with customers in real time on an unprecedented scale. But doing so requires reinventing the agency model—and most agencies seem reluctant to come to terms with that. Therein lies the fatal flaw of our industry.

Last month during Social Media Week 2012, Saatchi Wellness hosted the first-ever health and wellness track here in New York City. Those who are familiar with our client base may find this curious—large pharmaceutical brands may be the last to use social media in a meaningful way because of the lack of guidance from the FDA (and resulting trepidation from the clients' own regulatory and legal departments). But we're doing it because of the need we see to be as close to our customers as we possibly can.

We don't look at social media as having a sole currency of ‘likes'; the play in social media is not seeing how many consumers “friend” our brands. Rather, social media is the great leveler, empowering people as it provides transparency and access to ideas and information to deliver more innovative change, faster.

This is where agencies will make their mistake. The advertising business has not been about empowering consumers, never has: it has been about peddling influence, communicating a brand message that hopefully creates engagement (or trial), preference and loyalty. In advertising, the customer never really had a stake in the game—it has always been about how they respond to our message.

So, like Scott Thompson, we need to reinvent ourselves for these times, with a sole focus on delivering the highest level of client value. Agencies can embrace this need to change and become part of the conversation, or they can sit back and watch their value melt away in the eyes of their clients. Agencies sit at the intersection of the very things that people who are making (literally) billions off of this changing environment want: We create content that instills value in brands and relationships; we have access to developing technologies; we have the data; we have the clients (who have the money to make growth happen); and, most importantly, we have the customer insights—in effect, we are closer to the customer than most media or technology companies. “Closest to the customer wins” should be the mantra agencies repeat to themselves for guidance as they change with these times.

Ned Russell is managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness
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