How 2020 Has Redesigned the Agency Landscape



On December 9, marketing leaders from Canada’s top firms joined in a virtual roundtable session to discuss the forces that have shaped the agency landscape in 2020, what’s affecting marketers most, and what we can expect to see in the year ahead. As this tumultuous year comes to a close, this year’s discussion—the Fifth Annual Agency Panel—was especially poignant. Key topics included how the role of brands is changing, client/agency relationships, the evolving talent mix, diversity and inclusion, MarTech and data, as well as the “new normal” in a post-pandemic world.

This virtual roundtable session was hosted by AMA Board Member Matt Chong, VP of Brand Partnerships at Fifth Story. The panellists were Lewise Hiltz, VP Digital Transformation at KPI Digital; Eric Tang, Managing Director Canada at Porter Novelli; Trevor Thomas, Group Strategy Director at john st.; and Cass Zawadowski, Co-Executive Creative Director at Wunderman Thompson Canada. The panel was also joined by special guest David Kincaid, Founder and Managing Partner at Level5 Strategy.


Brands are assets

To start the discussion, Matt invited special guest David Kincaid to speak about his new book, The Brand-driven CEO, and about how the role of the brand is changing. David noted that when he started in the business, agencies acted as the keepers of brands. They helped companies run the business, and they were an integral partners. Subsequently, that role became confused, even lost. David emphasized that “brands are assets, probably the most misunderstood and underleveraged asset sitting on a company’s balance sheet.” 

The pandemic represents the single largest episode of change in many brands’ lives, and great brands will be able to manage that change. For agencies, this represents an opportunity to manage change, and to do so in a meaningful way. Because nobody knows what’s happening tomorrow, “the more great strategic minds and strategic business insights are applied to a brand, the better.” David also pointed out that since “performance marketing and brand building are the same thing, and that what you measure matters,” agencies partnering with brands should be taking an active role to determine what the key performance measures are. David’s key takeaway? Both agencies and the brands together should be stewards of the brand, helping to advocate for it, and making sure that brands see their value as an asset.


“The only people that control the brand are the consumers.” – David Kincaid


The evolving talent mix

In an uncertain landscape, the ability to pivot and change with the times is essential, and this has placed more attention on the evolving talent mix, and the essential skills or ways of thinking that are crucial to success in the agency business. Eric addressed this point by emphasizing that the next year will likely continue to be challenging, and dealing with these challenges is going to take resilience. For Eric, this kind of resilience can be boiled down to fundamental leadership skills: listening intentionally, anticipating intentionally, and acting courageously. 


“As much as people say I love change, I embrace change, at the heart of it, no one feels comfortable about uncertainty. In 2020, we all just had to learn to live with it.” – Eric Tang


The surprising impact of the transition to remote work

While Cass expected her team to struggle to embrace remote work, she was surprised (but maybe shouldn’t have been?) when her team picked it up seamlessly: “like typical creatives, we reacted with agility, and we just made do.” Cass feels that the difficult feedback creatives receive regularly gives them greater resiliency, a tougher skin. 

Cass also noted that the pandemic opened up new opportunities to access talent across wider networks, and that this was made easier through the use of digital tools such as Mural and Envision. Trevor agreed with Cass, and also noted that digital platforms actually made brainstorming more productive than in-person sessions: “I see more ideas come out of the room when we’re using a digital platform, and people lock in. There’s no way to get lost or hide in a corner.” This point was also addressed by Lewise, who noted that digital platforms and online video was helping people to participate more, to feel a little braver, and by Eric, who pointed out that remote meetings require more discipline and preparation, and that he hoped some of this new discipline will continue once people get back into the office.


“We’re doing some of the best work we’ve ever done, and we’re doing it miles apart. When we get back to whatever the new normal is going to be, I’d love to see it be a mix of working from home and work at the office.” – Cass Zawadowski


Building client relationships – but at a distance

Lewise started the discussion by noting that while some clients initially resisted using virtual tools, her agency has found that virtual meetings have not only been quicker and more personable than the usual phone calls, but that the lack of travel has led to more time with clients, and more productive relationships as a result. Trevor mentioned that his agency has put a lot of effort into bringing energy to digital sessions, and that clients are responding positively. Eric observed that even as they’re making decisions that will impact their entire brand, they’re also getting an intimate view into each others’ living spaces, and that showing the human side over video—the chaos of normal life—definitely helps build relationships.


Tackling diversity, equity and inclusion

Cass began by noting that her agency has recently filled roles for North American and Global Diversity and Inclusion Leads to help implement strategies moving forward. Cass also pointed out how important it is that the diversity and inclusion framework should be constantly evolving, and how employee engagement and participation is essential to ensure that behaviours change. In addition to implementing needed changes in hiring practices, Trevor’s agency has created a roadshow for clients, where they talk about the importance of Diversity and Inclusion, and how change can best be accomplished through the work that they do together. Eric highlighted that his agency has created listening groups about ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and people living with disabilities, and that they are creating measurable action plans, so that people can hold the agency accountable in a year’s time. 


“We look at the work we do with clients, we examine it with a new lens, and we try to find ways to be more inclusive, to bring more diversity into the messages. We question ourselves so we can do better.” – Trevor Thomas


Taking a stand – can brands afford not to?

Eric’s agency has done careful study, and can confidently say that brands can no longer afford to ignore issues or take the safe path: “in the United States, 45 percent of Gen Z will cancel brands that aren’t addressing racial inequality, 70 percent say that companies have more responsibility than ever to address social justice issues, and 56 percent say companies that don’t talk about social justice issues in their marketing or communications are out of touch.” This is a powerful message, and executives are paying attention. Trevor agreed, and pointed out that from a strategy perspective, the idea of conviction—of believing in something even if it costs you—is more important than ever in building a strong brand. Cass referred to the Facebook protests, and noted that while some brands participated for the sake of being there, “the brands that really do take a stand on the most important issues affecting society are the brands that have a better chance at building brand loyalty.”


The pandemic’s impact on consumer behaviour, and trends for 2021

As online shopping replaced going to stores, the industry affected the most may have been grocery: Lewise pointed out that the first two months of the pandemic saw online grocery increase by more than 20 percent, and that by the end of 2020, it’s going to hit 40 percent. These drastic changes to our habits also have an impact on agencies: “it’s our responsibility to adapt, to use analytics not just to understand what the customer is doing, but also to understand why they’re doing it.”


“Customers today want us to anticipate their needs before they even know what they are.” – Lewise Hiltz


With regard to building brands, Trevor stated that the soul of the brand is even more important now, and it needs to be evident in everything you do: “whether it’s in store, or a website, or a social post, every touchpoint should feel like it came from the soul of that brand.” By defining who they are and what they stand for, brands can truly become unique.

Given that 2021 is likely to be even noisier than 2020, Eric noted that brands must take a hard look at how they’ll stay relevant, at what they’ve learned through the challenges of the past year, and above all, at what they’ve committed to do. He pointed out that preparing for the conversation is as important as the P&L, and that protecting the brand value and the promises that have been made will be essential going forward.

Lewise is looking to 2021 as a chance to create better customer experiences. She emphasized that even big names with a stronghold on loyalty lost that in 2020, mainly because of customer experience: “customers want convenience, and that’s why we always say that customer experience is the new brand.”




About KPI Digital

This event was generously sponsored by KPI Digital. For over 30 years, KPI Digital has been helping clients meet their revenue goals. KPI Digital  helps clients optimize all business processes so they can meet their business objectives. They  offer proven solutions around Digital Transformation, Data, Analytics, AI and Performance Management. Their  value stems from their  team who have extensive and deep expertise in managing data and turning it into actionable insights. To learn more, please visit: 

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This post was written by HeadStart Copywriting

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