The Value of Audience Intelligence Extends Beyond Media—and That’s a Good Thing for Agencies

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The trend toward brand in-housing of media operations has been a growing challenge for agencies for more than a decade now. As of this time last year, 91% of brands reported having moved at least a part of their digital marketing operations in-house. Many agencies have had to address the question: How do we stay relevant in an age of direct-to-consumer strategies and increasing automation of media execution? 

As we enter the next era of audience intelligence, today’s agencies have a new opportunity to refine their value proposition to clients and reclaim their roles as strategic advisors, all by leveraging the same strengths and tools that once defined their roles as invaluable media partners. Let’s look at how agencies can help brands extend the promise of audience intelligence beyond optimizing their media plans. 

Looking Beyond the Age of DTC

The rise of today’s DTC brands has fueled a deep appreciation among all marketers for what audience intelligence can bring to media spend. The consumer-direct darlings of the past decade excelled because they managed to maintain closed-loop relationships with their customers, which in turn fueled efficiencies in the use of audience insights to derive maximum value from every paid media dollar spent. A lot of that first-party-data-driven work happened in-house at emerging DTC brands, which were empowered in their early growth phases by new self-serve advertising platforms. Legacy brands took note of the apparent efficiencies of this approach and began asking themselves how much of their own media execution could and should be brought back inside their own walls. 

Fast-forward a decade, and a significant portion of today’s digital media spend is being placed and optimized algorithmically, and advertisers—DTC and legacy brands alike—are amassing great stores of audience intelligence internally. Efficient, audience-driven management of media no longer represents a competitive advantage. It’s table stakes. 

The next generation of competitive advantage will not be derived from media. Rather, it will be realized by the organizations that move most swiftly and completely to democratize data-driven insights across their organizations. Audience intelligence, after all, can and should inform much more than media spending. It should serve as the crux of sound creative product, customer service, and competitive differentiation planning. The same data that enables advertisers to advertise efficiently across platforms is, in fact, the data that can help them tap into and define the next big innovation in their space. 

Restoring the Agency’s Strategic Role

It is within this crucial pivot in the application of audience intelligence that agencies have a unique opportunity to reestablish their place of honor beside their brand clients. As organizations take on the weighty task of extending audience intelligence capabilities across departments and functions, the inherent strengths of the agency model become newly relevant. 

Although much of the audience intelligence that will propel brands into their next phases resides in-house, most companies lack the capabilities to organize and operationalize those insights, and then put them into context within the broader marketplace. Meanwhile, today’s agencies excel when it comes to looking across the fuller landscape and thinking creatively about new and improved uses for existing data sets and campaign insights. Furthermore, most agencies also have access to supplemental software, tools, and data expertise that can help vet and extrapolate the conclusions being drawn from a brand’s own first-party data. 

Agencies can help to bring more scale and better context to their brand partners’ efforts as they enter this new era of growth in which competitive advantage will be realized in core areas beyond marketing and media spend. Ultimately, the same strategic thinking and contextual capabilities and tools that once defined agencies as good media partners will be their advantage in this next wave of competitive brand positioning. 

Aaron Goldman is CMO of 4C Insights.