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Ad agencies are in the product development business

March 12, 2012

In one of Richard Huntingdon’s blog posts from January of this year; he explains how looking through the lenses of product, brand and communications can help to identify the area of focus and to help inform the direction of the creative brief.

However, as is the case with many posts, the gems are often hidden in the comments, where there seems to be an interesting line of thinking emerging that challenges the ability of ad agencies to solve client product problems.

“The area of what you do when there is a ‘Product’ problem is the most interesting right now. Product difference is more important than ever before in our ZMOT, like button, Amazon review, TripAdvisor world. This is the area which ad agencies are least equipped to deal with – we’re generally pretty good at helping with Brand or Comms problems.

“If we in ad agencies don’t have a strategy for how we can advise clients in designing outstanding products then we will be marginalising ourselves even further from what is the most important step in brand-building.”

Advertising was at its zenith in the mid-1980s, when technology wasn’t the force it is today and agencies were being tasked with using their skills to help consumer products, which were often at parity with their competition, to differentiate themselves through building stronger emotional connections; as we all know great creative advertising can do just that.

Fast forward to 2012 and while many of the same problems of parity exist for classic packaged goods brands, the brands with energy and momentum right now are those that technological products and services- think of apps, search engines, social networks, handsets, operating systems, e-commerce sites. All things where the product and the product experience do make a real difference.

In this world of technological opportunity, agencies need to get involved in product development. This isn’t about creating a new beer, or launching a clothing line, but instead, helping non-technology based brands to embrace technology and to help those with technology, to make their experiences better.

Account Planning was born in the last great moment of consumer change, the 1960s, by people who felt the industry had become removed from the realities of its customers. Account Planning was created to build a bridge and bring insight from the consumer to the creative process.

The world has moved on, but the core principles of Account Planning that exist in agencies, should be flexible and adaptable enough to help those agencies develop and enhance technology. It’s a skill that’s basically all about understanding people and trying to anticipate their wants and needs.

The insights gathered during the process are boiled to their core and the output is always a simple idea that’s very concentrated and powerful which becomes the building block for advertising.

If agencies are doing all the hard work to understand consumers and throwing away 90% of it, we now have a use for it, because to help our clients develop products for the technological age, we need to think expansively about possibilities.

This isn’t about finding the one thing that consumers want, but understanding the broad opportunities and how they can best be configured to meet needs.

It would be naïve to simply suggest that we just need to simply reapply what’s been done before, to something new, that’s not the case.

To help agencies create digital products for clients- planners need to been able to go broad fast and understand all the aspects of people’s interactions with a category and put this in the context of the technological tools and access points available. It’s an exercise in looking at possibilities and identifying those that are unmet or under-served.

To get there, Planners need to rely on a mix of new and traditional tools. This should include deep dives with data, working with those in the UX discipline to better understand interaction and being fully on-board with the latest information on what’s technologically feasible.

Agencies certainly have the opportunity to help build, create and optimize products and they have the people skills and discipline to do it, the critical thing to recognize and realize is that these skills need to be used in slightly different ways and to be updated to be relevant, but there’s nothing that says it’s impossible to achieve.

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