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The Joy of CX

Customer experience, or CX to its more intimate relations, is turning many agency heads. And with good reason

By ian darby

While CX has been around for decades in one guise or another, the rise of customer focus at established brands, driven in no small part by the challenge from direct-to-consumer rivals, together with more robust data and technology that enables stronger experience delivery to the people who buy products and services, has taken the discipline to a new level.

The agency sector, therefore, senses an opportunity. We’ve seen several agencies develop specialist CX units or services - Uncommon Creative Studio and VCCP are among the most recent. While, last year, New Commercial Arts opened its doors with customer experience as an essential component of its service offer. But why is this, what’s in it for agencies, and how does it improve and deepen client relationships?

Investment in talent

VCCP CX, which works with clients including O2 and Reckitt, has just strengthened its team with the appointments of Scott Ewings as chief executive, and Josette James as client partner. Ewings says: “If you’re in advertising and marketing you’re very much about trying to populate culture with the brand identity and positioning, and landing that in people’s mindsets with something exciting that they want to engage in. The challenge with that has always been the breakdown with what a brand promises and the interactions that customers then have with it on a daily basis. Having a cohesive whole where all the touchpoints and interactions are tightly knit with that brand purpose, and the promises it makes to its customers, is still a shining goal, which explains why comms led people are trying to get into this space.”

Rob Curran is a co-founder of New Commercial Arts, which works with clients including Halifax and Zurich. He argues that it’s now an important part of an agency’s role to work with brands to ensure that their promises are kept to customers: “That seems really obvious – treat customers well and keep our promises – but it didn’t seem to us that there were any agencies out there that were really doing that in unison and integrating it together. Somehow the agency world separated the jobs of making promises and keeping promises with different agencies doing those things, and it just feels that this needs to be put together.”

Filling a gap

Kirsten Stagg, marketing director at Skoda UK, which in 2017 was one of the first automotive brands in the UK to introduce a Virtual Showroom, welcomes this greater investment from agencies: “It is a helpful development as this can be a gap within your integrated agency roster, with different agencies having dedicated areas of responsibility but without the overarching remit to consider the total customer experience. It will come down to a question of budget, though, as this would represent an incremental cost, so the question will be whether clients place enough value on this service to prioritise the budget for an additional agency.”

On the combination of brand expertise with CX, she adds: “It has the potential to deliver more ground-breaking changes to the customer experience and it could help to reduce or eliminate any potential disconnect between the experience that a customer may have with your brand through marketing touchpoints - advertising, website, CRM - and the physical in-store experience.”

MSQ Partners and Wunderman Thompson are businesses that are both well-established in the data and design-led areas of customer experience. From their perspective, how does it transform the client relationship, if at all?

Conrad Rasmussen, head of experience at Wunderman Thompson, says that while assembling the necessary talent is one issue, especially with so many designers tempted into roles at the big tech companies, the real opportunities and challenges lie in dealing with changing client structures: “We are competing with the consultants, we’re definitely going up against Accenture and Deloitte regularly, then we go up against the pure play advertising groups. I think that agencies are changing their structures, but so are brands with CX units. We used to talk to the CMO but now there’s also a CXO and a CTO, and CIO, these are different people in different roles but working increasingly in the same teams.”

Boardroom attention

Ceri Perkins, the chief CX officer at MSQ-owned agency MBAstack, agrees that negotiating a route through client structures takes commitment: “It’s hugely challenging because, quite often, you find there’s not one person who’s responsible for CX. It’s only now it’s really getting to a boardroom conversation and sometimes CX projects can fall by the wayside because you need that CEO buy-in across multiple departments to corral everyone together around the customer. And, if you’re not set-up in that way, and have these siloed departments that don’t even talk to each other, you end up just sorting through one part of the customer experience with huge fragmentation.”

However, Perkins believes that this presents an opportunity for agencies, above the management consultancies, if they are able to combine the “data, insight, empathy, and creativity” with “the wow factor” of delivering a brand promise.

Media agencies have long been proactive in identifying a role for themselves in providing brands with a “single view of the customer”, using data to understand the purchase journey and providing interventions along the way. The best among them combines this approach with creative thinking when it comes to the customer. Andrew Stephens, co-founder of Goodstuff, says: “We’ve always believed that every single thing is media, whether it’s your shop, or you staff, your lorries or your app.” This view has resulted in the agency delivering customer experience for Ann Summers in the shape of its “Man Summers” work and, more recently, for ITV by providing a digital programme guide for viewers to help the broadcaster take on the data-heavy threat of Netflix.

MediaCom, meanwhile, invested in digital customer experience when it acquired Manchester-based studio Code Computerlove in 2016. This was a reflection, says Sue Unerman, the agency’s chief transformation officer, of the growing importance of digital experience, and people being far less forgiving of a bad experience through these channels, which has only been accelerated by the impact of Covid. Louis Georgiou, the founder and managing director of Code Computerlove, says this has evolved into creating “digital experiences that permeate the real world”. He adds: “We don’t just look at how people interact online but their broader experience of how they’re introduced to a brand, and how we can encourage them to continue to interact.” He says that this involves, for clients including Hillarys Blinds, understanding how call centres, fulfilment, sales advisers, and the fitting team work as part of the experience.

This view is echoed by Stewart Griffiths, head of multichannel creative and user experience at O2. He says: “How customers interact with brands has evolved and we’ve seen CX fundamentally shift away from its traditional sales and marketing channel-specific touchpoints. We must now consider both linear and non-linear interactions as our customers live, work, shop and play in a more connected world, and all this accelerated by the recent pandemic."

The evolution described here offers sizeable growth potential, together with a far broader creative canvas, for those agencies that have invested in the CX space.

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