If you work in the worlds of advertising, media, research, new media and design, the chances are you are already experiencing on a daily basis a huge sea change in how you ply your trade. This new way of working is only going to accelerate and will have a huge impact on the type of talent that marketing services firms seek out, and strive to retain, in the coming months and years. It will also impact upon Brand You, as you look to market yourself and build your career in the marketing services world and, by extension, on the client side.

In the ‘good old days’ (whenever this nebulous era actually was) Agency Man/Woman used to engage with their client directly: take a project brief, bring it back to the ranch to cogitate on and share among the in-house team. Then after a suitably long, fee-rich period, take back their ideas, findings, wisdom etc. to share with the client.

It was clean, linear and everyone understood their roles and remuneration.
Not any more.

The ‘three forces of co-creation’ are blowing a gale through these cosy, two-way relationships and forcing brand owners and their agencies to rapidly experiment with new modes of creation, collaboration and consumer engagement.

So what are the three forces and what has given rise to them?

  1. the necessity to engage consumers in design, marketing and innovation co-creation
  2. the growing desire of brand owners to work collaboratively with their key agencies to develop and implement brand strategy, and
  3. the requirement by brand owners that all their agency partners (media planning, advertising, brand design, new media, research etc.) work in cooperation to create big brand ideas, which transcend media channels and bring them to life imaginatively and consistently.

Why has this come to pass?

Consumers no longer wait to be marketed at – they seek out brands they admire to engage with and use a plethora of new channels to interact with and shape these brands from YouTube, to MySpace, blogs, via PVRs, interactive TV and 3G phones. They spread recommendations and condemnations of brands at the flick of a text and have the power to shape and refer brands as never before. They are empowered, networked and opinionated like never before… and this is only the beginning.

In this context brand owners and their agencies have to find new ways to engage with, rather than market to consumers. To entertain them, educate them and stimulate them. To allow consumers to feel actively involved in the lives and evolution of their brands. At the heart of this process lies the Big Idea. An idea that can leap across media, take on a life of its own and inspire consumers to become employees for your brand. Traditional agency structures are not capable of creating the strategies and communications Big Ideas again and again that clients require, or to bring them to life quickly enough. This new paradigm requires new modes of working, new agency structures and new skills for those of us working in the marketing discipline.

The three forces explained

1. Co-creation with consumers

This has been happening for a while with more inspired brand owners and branding agencies who involve consumers in design and innovation projects via user observations, co-creation workshops, discussion forums, brand-fan sites, beta testing sites and interactive research (where concepts are evolved between groups based on customer feedback). The best co-creation is live, with creatives and brand strategists interacting in an informal setting with consumers to discuss possibilities, preferences and, most importantly, draw pictures together! Engaged consumers become raving evangelists for the brands they have helped to shape and myths and legends are born and spread virally (both in the old-fashioned, word of mouth sense and via new media).

The current ‘fad’ for consumers to create their brand advertising may not last the course, but what is here to stay is direct and paid participation by consumers in the earliest stages of concept development, innovation and ideation.

2. Co-creation with brand owners

Historically ad agencies were brand custodians for their clients’ brand strategies. They were the trusted advisers that CEOs and boards turned to for PR and marketing advice and to help them advertise their way out of sticky situations and sales slumps.

Today’s marketing budgets are being spread far wider than TVCs alone and marketing partners with (new) channel expertise, fresh consumer insights or different creative capabilities (read: new ways to tell stories) are all potential partners to assist in brand strategy creation and execution. As long as the partner understands their client’s business and brands intimately and has the gravitas to deserve a seat at the top table then this need no longer be the preserve of ad agencies alone.

In the last few months alone I have seen major brand owners here in Australia turn to their media planning agencies, brand design agencies and new media agencies to help them create visions for their brands and their roles in consumer lives and supermarket fixtures. In many cases advertising agencies remain at the table, or lead the search for the Big Brand Idea, but this clearly is no longer their preserve and they are increasingly being asked to participate in a small team of brand advisers. Which leads nicely into the third force…

3. Co-creation with agency partners

As a brand owner (which I once was) I don’t care where the Big Idea comes from. I just need one, and fast. So the more cooperative and co-creative my marketing services partners are, the more likely I am to find this elusive brand breakthrough, and be able to execute it across channels… quickly.

No room for turf wars or squabbles over IP here – think Open Source software creation rather than media fiefdoms, and a new remuneration model reflecting shared IP and co-creation. The simple metric will be that if you’ve added value you’ll get a share of the pie. If you haven’t, you are unlikely to get an invitation to the next strategy and planning party!

Again, I’m witnessing this phenomenon first-hand on a weekly basis as brand owners demand, not ask, their agencies to sit with them to nut out brand challenges and campaigns. A packaging design becomes the central idea for above the line communication; new media channels are actively sought to stretch a brand into a younger audience profile; direct channels become the Big Idea for brands to engage consumers face-to-face (sampling, events, sponsorship, brand environments etc.). From beverages to ice-cream, financial services to biscuits, cooperation and co-creation are a reality.

Implications for recruitment and career development

  • Bring consumer insights directly into the business. Hire a researcher, partner with a research agency or train your brightest in interacting with consumers on their terms and in their territories. Regular ‘field trips’, user observations and informal consumer chats keep you fresh and designing in the real world.
  • Find the ‘über-suit’: a perfect blend of planner and revenue driver who can grow strategic accounts, shape brand strategy, identify and act on consumer insights and work confidently with other agencies. Alternatively, turn yourself into this most sought after of entities. Jump between marketing services disciplines as you progress in your career. Seek out projects and clients who will blood you in the boundary-less world of co-creation, and be prepared for a few nervous moments as you leap out of your comfort zone.
  • If you work in account service – in any discipline – and you can’t talk brand confidently and with experience you’d better do something about it fast! Twenty young MBA or design school grads will be nipping at your heels fully capable (and trained) to work in cross-discipline brand teams and speak the language… and possibly for far less money that you pull down.
  • If you are running the show then actively job swap, buddy, hire from, partner or engage with as diverse a group of other agencies as possible. Put some of your young talent into their space for a while and reciprocate. Keep across developments in their industries and look for synergies with key clients to accelerate cross-agency working.
  • Train, develop, recruit or become a creative who can interact with consumers in the co-creation process. No preciousness about ‘work’ and ‘but-that-was-my-idea’! Have people who can listen intently, visualise speedily and translate what they hear into powerful brand ideas.
  • Stay open. New media channels, technologies, successful brands, rivals, students/interns… can all be sources of inspiration and hints of emerging trends. A rigid business model is a dead one – look for the next source of the Big Idea and the talent to help you bring it alive.

Careers in marketing ceased being linear pathways decades ago. The ‘three forces of co-creation’ merely accelerate the pace of change in our industry, and place responsibility squarely on the shoulders of individuals to ensure they can capitalise on the demands of co-creation. They aren’t a passing fad.

Not only does co-creation offer richer and more diverse experiences and interactions for those of us engaged with brand creation, communication and management, but it also opens up untold future pathways for us as we progress in our working lives. I predict far more hopping from client side to the agency environment and back again in the future, and also greater movement between marketing disciplines with a frequency that until recently was considered the signature of only the most schizophrenic or indecisive individuals… or maybe they were just prescient?