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Predictions 2019: The year ahead for integrated communications, by Sunil John

Agencies are not only working together more but also merging altogether to simplify their offering and integrate with their partners’ operations, says Asda’a BCW’s Sunil John

By Sunil John, president and founder of Asda’a BCW

If 2018 was the year for consolidation, 2019 will be the year of integration – a rewriting of rules and a tearing down of barriers that will revitalise the communications industry and cement the sector’s position as the most dynamic and exciting environment in which anyone could wish to work.

This will be the year that marketing technology – martech – breaks out of specialist niches and becomes mainstream across the industry. McKinsey suggests that through
the smart application of data analytics alone, companies can free up to around 15 per cent of their marcomms spending – or some $200bn a year globally – for re-investment or to add to the bottom line. That’s going to have a major effect on our business, accelerating us ever quicker toward that inevitable horizon line where there won’t be advertising shops or public relation consultancies or even dedicated media buyers – there will just be ‘agencies’, staffed by a modern, multiskilled and flexible workforce.   

Our integrated future will mean fewer companies applying greater expertise across more fields, and ultimately delivering more effective campaigns for significantly better value.

When I look at integration, be it locally, regionally or globally, I’m reminded of the mathematical concept of fractals, and how some objects or environments look very similar regardless of scale – a tiny patch of desert, for example, looks remarkably similar to the satellite image of the whole of the Sahara. Equally, the strategies that work on a micro level are often the same as those that are successful on a global scale.

To explain further, it may help to look at the experiences of Asda’a BCW, our global network, Burson, Cohn & Wolfe, and WPP, our parent group and, for decades now, the trailblazer in global communication strategy. Getting granular, when looking at the companies in the Asda’a stable – Asda’a BCW, Proof and PSB Research – the secret of our success over recent years is, to a large extent, down to our focus on integration; what I like to refer to The Power of Three. As an integrated offering, we bring research capabilities, creative, branding and digital to the table – an integrated skillset that was perhaps unusual five years ago, but, I’m willing to bet, a bare-minimum service offering for any agency in a couple more.

Scaling up, at a network level, the merger between Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe has created a fully integrated entity that is considerably greater than the sum of its parts: a top-three agency whose scale is matched by its expertise in multiple disciplines. We see the same approach in sister agencies Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R – new entities that merge expertise and heritage with 21st century approaches.

The next logical step will be merging the disciplines entirely. I may be biased, but I see the PR agencies emerging as the clear leaders of tomorrow’s fully integrated agencies. After all, we already own the conversation and engagement space that is defining future communications; we’re already embedded in the C-suite, in charge of communications and with the ear of the CEOs and chairpersons; the next step, as leaders of integrated agencies, will be gaining the trust of the marketing chiefs, and jumping up several levels in terms of budgets – twelvefold, in fact.

While that endpoint may still be some years away, it is inevitable, as WPP’s recent moves show. Ever greater integration – and not just consolidation – is at the heart of what WPP CEO Mark Read has termed our process of ‘radical evolution’. In response to challenging conditions, WPP is getting back to basics, focusing on core areas of communications, experience, commerce and technology.

“What we hear from clients is very consistent: they want our creativity, and they want us to help them transform their business in a world reshaped by technology,” Mark said, when he unveiled the new strategy. “This is at the heart of what we do. We are fundamentally repositioning WPP as a creative transformation company with a simpler offer that allows us to meet the present and future needs of clients.”

How WPP will achieve this is by simplifying our offerings; becoming leaner and more client-centric and having fewer, more integrated companies. We are also integrating further at a country level, including putting more companies together in campuses where we can share key resources and better communicate with each other. Horizontality drove our thinking in recent years – greater integration will drive our continued growth in 2019 and beyond.

I firmly believe in Mark Read’s vision for WPP because I have seen how well it works first-hand. How excited clients are when they see the other options we can bring to the table, be it in-depth stakeholder polling or a comprehensive re-branding or a multi-platform community management programme, and how impressed they are that we can deliver these seamlessly with our traditional communications programmes, and for great value.

I’m looking forward to 2019 to continue our own integration journey with BCW, and am excited myself at the amazing new tech-driven products we will incorporate in our own offerings. Here’s to an exceptional, prosperous and integrated New Year.