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If you, a marketer, woke up from a four-year coma to be met with ChatGPT prompts on LinkedIn or SEO as we know it today, you wouldn’t recognise your industry.

Marketing today is a whole other beast.

We wouldn’t know who and what to thank first for transforming our industry so quickly.

Remote work? The pandemic? The Great Resignation? Changing consumer behaviour, preferences, and trends? Or perhaps fancy new marketing trends and tools?

Whatever got the ball rolling brought some new challenges:

  • Higher agency employee turnover rate
  • Working from home being commonplace
  • Consumers getting fed up with ads
  • Google getting rid of cookies and changing the game

Imagine how much could change in five more years from now?

Thankfully, your business is not in a coma.

With the right resources, like this guide, you can prepare for the future of marketing agencies instead of being surprised by it.

All aboard?

How Recent Events Have Changed The Future Of Digital Marketing Agencies

We’re not talking decades. Recent events have made major shifts in only a few years.

Here are some events that ushered in changes on all fronts, including the marketing scene:

  • The pandemic
    • Increasing the demand for remote work exponentially
    • Affecting the mental and physical well-being of workers across the globe
  • The Great Resignation
    • The need to hire and train new employees more frequently
    • A lot of great marketing talent leaving the industry
  •  Technological advancements
    • Mobile devices becoming indispensable
    • The rise of automation and marketing tool advancements
    • Artificial intelligence (like ChatGPT and image generators) opening new possibilities, influencing some job descriptions, and polarising opinions
  •  Cookie and ad-free websites
    • People decidedly spending more time on platforms without ads
    • Google announcing moving away from cookies and focusing on user-oriented performance metrics

This is a lot for just a couple of years’ worth of time. But you know it – you’ve been around.

So, more importantly, what are the results of all these events, and what do they mean for the future of marketing agencies?

Challenges Of The Digital Marketing Agency Of The Future

There are a few consistent themes that you’re bound to come across simply by scrolling down your LinkedIn feed in the morning.

If you’re not careful, the experience can go a bit like Googling your cold symptoms and inaccurately self-diagnosing the worst-case scenario.

We don’t want to fearmonger or confuse you.

So, to keep everything clear, we’ll be specific about the timeframes for each challenge so you know if it’s already happening, about to escalate in the next couple of years, or might take place in the distant future.

Here’s a preview:

ChallengeExplanation
1. Staffing problems
  • Record turnover rates and the ongoing Great Resignation
  • Increasing staff costs
2. Demand for remote and hybrid work
  • Communication and employee management
  • Employee inclusion and socialisation
  • Work-from=home depression
3. Reliance on an eat-what-you-kill mentality and commission-based pay
  • Focusing on the wrong priorities
  • Incentivising behaviours that don’t prioritise customers’ best interest
4. Websites in a post-cookie, post-ad era
  • Google announcing the retirement of cookies
  • Consumers showing they’re over ads
5. Increasingly more internal marketing agencies
  • Brands needing more control and stability and wanting to spend less
  • The need for data ownership
  • External agencies needing to future-proof their services
6. Evolving landscape due to AI and new tech
  • Knowing which technologies to use and how
  • Search and other generative AI like ChatGPT
  • Operational AI is becoming expected
  • Smartphones becoming the standard
  • Voice search getting more popular

And now the full version.

1. Staffing Problems

Staffing problems are very much our current reality.

We’ve mentioned the pandemic and the Great Resignation already. Let’s also keep in mind the war in Ukraine, Brexit, and inflation.

Talent attrition and increasing staff costs related to record turnover rates are making it harder and more expensive to find and keep great employees.

Creatives, even more so. They were difficult to find and secure already because they get snatched and overbooked so fast.

The kind-of good news? According to MIT Sloan Management Review, the top predictors of attrition during the Great Resignation are, in order:

  1. Toxic company culture
  2. Job insecurity and reorganisation
  3. High innovation
  4. Lack of employee performance recognition
  5. Poor COVID-19 response and a lack of care for employee well-being as a whole

What’s good about that, you might ask?

These causes are things we can control. It turns the global big bad wolf into a distressed domestic animal we can take better care of, with some guidance.

2. Demand For Remote And Hybrid Work

Speaking of caring for employee well-being, one big current concern is the return-to-office debate.

Lots of people prefer working online or having some sort of flexible, hybrid arrangement.

With inflation in the picture, one great solution many remote workers have found is to move from cities to suburbs to decrease their costs of living.

Then there are the full-time travellers or digital nomads, parents and caregivers, and others who realistically can’t work in the office full-time.

In short, remote work is here to stay.

It brings a lot of opportunities and benefits to the table, but there are some challenges to overcome as well:

  • Communication and employee management
  • Employee inclusion and socialisation
  • Work-from-home depression

For marketing agencies just switching over to remote or hybrid work, it’s a learning curve to know what to prioritise and how to keep everyone happy while still running a business.

3. Reliance On An Eat-What-You-Kill Mentality And Commission-Based Pay

Performance-based compensation can work great. The idea is certainly good.

But the reality sometimes pans out a bit differently than what you originally imagined.

Take commission-based pay. You might think you’re incentivising high performance because high performers will earn more.

But what you might unintentionally be incentivising is a focus on wrong priorities and behaviours that ultimately don’t serve customers in the best possible way.

For example, a salesperson motivated by the goal to close a deal or retain a customer is tempted to sell a product when the customer would benefit more from a different solution.

This leads to quick sugar-hits of gaming the performance metric and earning the commission, but long-term it can drive your customers away. It’s the same with marketing strategies.

Marketers have to be increasingly more discerning.

The challenge, especially with the rise of generative AI, is to prioritise purposeful and revenue-driving activities rather than chase vanity metrics.

If pumping out shedloads of mediocre content used to be an annoyance in B2B before, it’s about to become a competitive sport.

We will be seeing way more talk about engaged users and engaged sessions – and it’s already started with Google Analytics 4.

Check out one marketing director’s predictions:

4. Websites In A Post-Cookie, Post-Ad-Free Era

People generally don’t want ads.

When given the chance and if they can afford to do so, they choose platforms without them.

Those that can’t avoid ads still ignore them.

On top of that, we have to account for platform changes.

Google is retiring cookies in 2024, which threatens the entire business model for some digital media agencies.

How are we going to get all the data we need?

The future of advertising agencies includes understanding users better, owning our own first-party data, and building meaningful direct relationships with the audience.

5. Increasingly More Internal Marketing Agencies

This is a longer-term prediction based on a couple of factors:

  1. Inflation making everyone clutch their wallets harder, understandably
  2. Brands needing to be more in control of their data and marketing activities
  3. The desire for stability and security moving forward

Essentially, with all the things happening faster and faster, we’ll be seeing companies stick to in-house marketing agencies because it feels more in their control.

They don’t have to worry about their external marketing agency changing up their services or charging more when they’re barely finding the budget for marketing in the first place.

They can have a team of carefully selected and motivated internal employees who know the company and product inside-out, see their day-to-day needs, prioritise and rally behind the company’s goals, and evolve exactly how the company needs them to.

So where does that leave agencies like us or you?

The challenge for external agencies will be to position themselves in an increasingly competitive market and future-proof their services to be more customer- and people-centric.

Ad agencies need to be data-driven and use real-time market research to optimise their online presence and marketing services if they want to keep clients.

6. Evolving Landscape Due To AI And New Tech

*Sigh*. Do we implement it or not?

ChatGPT is all the buzz right now. LinkedIn is exploding with controversial opinions on it.

You can find prompts to use it to your advantage, reasons why it will never be the same as good creative human work, ways it can speed up parts of the creative process, how it will lead to the downfall of humanity, etc.

But there’s more than ChatGPT happening already:

  • Google launched its own AI in search this month to better understand search intent and answer super-long-tail keywords in context
  • Operational AI is already in use to help marketers get more value out of their time
  • Smartphones are very much the standard
  • Voice search boomed over the past couple of years

The question isn’t whether to use AI and machine learning for online marketing. It’s which technologies to use, and for what?

But, to be clear, marketers aren’t about to run out of jobs because of robots.

I mean, look at this screenshot and read the last sentence:

Bing adorably gave an alternative answer in case I was wondering about baked cookies’ shelf life.

That’s a simple example of why we need humans. A human would get from the way I’ve phrased my question that no, I clearly didn’t mean Subway double-choc cookies.

AI can only go so far without human editing. It can only fully replace mediocre work that isn’t worth more than the £10 it costs, which nobody should be publishing anyway.

So, let’s talk about what you should really be focusing on moving forward.

How To Prepare Your Marketing Agency For The Future

What’s a digital marketing agency of the future to do? We have some ideas.

Again, the quick version first:

Best practiceKey points
1. Utilise pull campaigns over push campaigns
  • Let your audience come to you
  • Use authoritative and valuable content marketing to keep ranking high
  • Consider TV product placement or influencers if you still wanna push
2. Leverage virtual communities
  • Hear about new best practices or industry news
  • Find experts for everything
  • Learn and network in communities on Slack or Facebook groups
  • Put yourself in a position where you never run out of options
3. Run low-risk tests with new tech releases
  • Anticipate industry changes and get a head start
  • Mitigate your risks in case new releases become mandatory changes
  • Optimise your agency direction, SOPs, and services to meet new demand and stay in business
4. Stay on top of your tech stack
  • Invest in automation
  • Make each process more efficient
  • Make better use of your talent’s time and creativity
  • Cut costs and create scalable workflows
  • Keep up so new tech advancements don’t overwhelm you
5. Know your audience – and their audience
  • Go beyond initial segmentation and marketing personas
  • Use social media and surveys
  • Track and analyse their behaviour
  • Ask to access clients’ analytics
6. Work towards an agile, flexible workforce
  • Offer flexible hours and work location
  • Provide on-the-job training
  • Allow lateral and upwards promotions
  • Base your decisions on your and your clients’ goals
  • Consider partnerships and non-traditional work arrangements
7. Shorten the customer journey
  • Specialise your services
  • Be laser-sharp in your customer targeting
  • Answer the target audience’s burning questions with your marketing material
  • Manage expectations to help customers decide with confidence

Don’t skip the details below.

1. Utilise Pull Campaigns Over Push Campaigns

Search engines are working to answer all questions on the search page, without users ever having to click on a search result. But they’re still sourcing their answers.

The game is still on.

Instead of shoving ads down unwilling people’s throats, try intriguing them to come to you.

Focus on creating relevant, well-researched and authoritative content on long-tail keywords to keep ranking high and getting people over to your party.

Don’t forget about content repurposing and distribution as well.

Still wanna go with push campaigns?

Ads still have their place. But product placement on TV and sponsored content from influencers have the audience’s favour, so that’s something to explore in the future.

Speaking of influencers, did you ever consider becoming or creating one of your own?

It can be hard to find the right person you really want to associate with and whose audience overlaps with yours.

Peep Laja, the founder of Wynter, made an interesting point about it:

Picking your partnerships wisely is going to be essential for your reputation and make you more trustworthy, too.

2. Leverage Virtual Communities

Remote work and social media have contributed to creative new ways for people to organise and communicate online.

There’s a group for everything these days.

Virtual communities are worth checking even if you’re not working from home yourself.

Why?

  • Stay in the loop by following thought leaders
  • Hear about new best practices or industry news
  • Mingle in social media comments and find experts for everything
  • Add high-quality candidates to your talent pool
  • Learn and network in communities on Slack or Facebook groups
  • Get priceless audience and client insights from Reddit, Quora and LinkedIn
  • Compare yourself with competitors to see where you stand
  • Get ideas to improve your business
  • Be in front of potential clients, build relationships, and land new opportunities
  • Put yourself in a position to never run out of options

Being social media savvy is hands-down one of the most important areas you can invest in right now. These channels are goldmines if you know how to use them.

3. Run Low-Risk Tests Using New Tech Releases

When it comes to technology, you can either be your Uncle Bob who still isn’t over touch-screen phones, or you can be like those kids who jump on new trends, playfully integrate them into their lives and now run TikTok.

There’s nothing wrong with Uncle Bob.

But, you’re in marketing, and we are talking about the future, so it’s best to be a little more open-minded.

Getting your hands on new tech while it’s new is a competitive advantage:

  1. Anticipate industry changes before they take the world by storm
  2. Mitigate your risks in case new releases become mandatory changes, like Google Analytics 4
  3. Know where your agency’s at and how to get the most out of your situation
  4. Optimise your agency direction, SOPs and services to meet new demand and stay in business

While half of your competitors are up in arms about the inevitable, you can experiment and learn in a controlled environment.

Then, by the time everyone has to get on board, you’ll already have the data you need to optimise your campaigns with minimum performance drop while enjoying smooth sailing.

4. Stay On Top Of Your Tech Stack

To continue off the previous point, new technology is a good thing.

Why make your team use clunky, outdated tools or waste their abilities on rough work a machine could do instead?

It’s not only pointless. The problem is, manual labour is not as scalable, which means a tension headache in the future.

Become friends with automation.

Jobs won’t run out; they will just change.

Make each process more efficient and make your team’s work more fulfilling and purposeful, leading to them wanting to stay with the agency and increasing your quality of work.

In the long run, automating parts of your workflow will also cut your labour costs. But perhaps the most important part for our discussion?

You need to keep up.

If you’re not using level 1 technology like marketing tools as we know them, it’s going to be more difficult to jump to level 2 when new solutions and updates roll out.

5. Know Your Audience – And Their Audience

Knowing your audience is important now, and will stay important in the future.

Strong customer relationships = longer customer lifespan = more profit and long-term security.

Get to know your audience beyond that initial marketing segmentation and persona research, and you’ll get laser sharp with personalisation, which is already in demand.

How?

The best places to start are your (or your clients’) sales and customer support departments.

Other ways you can get to know more about your audience include:

  • Engaging with them on socials
  • Tracking and analysing their behaviour on your site
  • Asking to access clients’ analytics
  • Creating surveys
  • Always asking for feedback after you’ve established a relationship with a client

6. Work Towards An Agile, Flexible Workforce

This is how you fight talent attrition.

Internal mobility directly relates to retention and avoiding skills gaps popping up in your company later on.

Let’s not beat around the bush: companies that offer flexibility in terms of location and hours get the top pick of the talent and generally have way bigger pools to draw from.

Another thing that helps with retention is providing plenty of self-development and on-the-job learning opportunities. That way, people can stay in the company even if they want to try a different role or advance in their careers.

You know, as they should.

Prioritising internal mobility and employee education helps employees grow with their roles, survive changing job descriptions and maintain stability.

Finally, be flexible in your full-service offerings and your agency’s direction.

This last bit can help smaller agencies rise to the top as they don’t have as many stakeholders to answer to when they want to change something – they can just swerve.

Get creative and focus on your goals and your target audience’s goals, even if it means stepping out of traditional frameworks. To be more specific:

  • Grow a large pool of experts you can consult and hire as needed, not necessarily full-time
  • Make lateral promotions a thing to retain your talent instead of re-hiring and training constantly
  • Invest in your employee education and hone their creativity, especially now that we’re about to see higher-than-ever rates of mediocre content pumped out using AI
  • Specialise, but stay open to growth and service adjustments
  • Consider partnerships with agencies or contributors that offer complementary services

7. Shorten The Customer Journey

Market saturation and technology advancements are making it increasingly harder to stand out.

To be a one-of-a-kind marketing agency, you have to be excellent at something, not kind of average at many things.

Everything needs to point to you being the Cinderella fit from miles away.

And you know the thing about Cinderella’s glass slipper?

It fits effortlessly.

That’s how your customer journey needs to feel: no friction, complications, or room for doubts – once the ideal customer finds you, there’s only one possible ending to the story.

To become that company with that kind of customer journey:

  • Specialise your services – fix a specific problem for a specific audience and make it all about them
  • Be laser-sharp in your customer targeting – make sure that slipper reaches Cinderella specifically, even if it means disqualifying the whole kingdom to get there (you don’t want the evil step sisters anyway)
  • Answer the target audience’s burning questions with your marketing material – reassure them early on and skip to the next stage
  • Manage expectations to help them make their decision – how long does onboarding take with you, and what does it entail?

If you can make yourself the obvious choice, predict the right questions, and answer them before your target customers even contact you, you’ll need fewer touches to reach your happily ever after.

Conclusion: The Future Of Marketing Agencies Isn’t Doom And Gloom

Yeah, AI and all the other rapid changes seem intimidating.

But marketing will always be human, and it will always be needed – yes, even in a recession.

So, as a last bit of advice, remember:

  1. Keep working to understand your audience and their audience
  2. Practise flexibility on all fronts so you can evolve naturally and keep competing
  3. Focus on client satisfaction through “selfless selling” and let your reputation do the talking

You can always check our resources for the tools we use with our clients. We’re working on a new one called “People Analyser” – something to keep an eye on for the future. 😉

Find out how we can help your business reach new heights! Get in touch