Technology is dramatically transforming the communications industry – and S4 Capital is a reflection of that.
When Martin Sorrell speaks, the advertising industry listens. That’s still the case even when he’s doing it as the head of a relatively small start-up, S4 Capital, rather than as the Chairman of WPP, the world’s largest communications conglomerate. Earlier this week he took to the stage at a Campaign Magazine event with his colleague Victor Knapp, the Chief Executive of MediaMonks, the content production company that S4 Capital acquired earlier this year. They discussed their ambitions for S4 Capital – some of which we will look at in more detail below; what is striking is that they are very much a reflection of how technology has transformed the media and advertising industries, fundamentally shifting priorities for brands and therefore for agencies. This change in direction is exemplified by the contrast between S4 Capital and the ‘traditional’ communications organisations such as Sorrell’s alma mater WPP.
The ambitions that Sorrell and Knapp laid out for S4 Capital fall into four areas. The first is how S4 is approaching media buying. It’s telling that their first acquisition in this space is, according to Sorrell, likely to be in the digital and programmatic space, as ‘that’s where the biggest opportunity is’. Knapp added that the acquisition is likely to be a more ‘performance-based agency’, although he believes that ‘there is no difference between brand-building and performance’. There are many discussions at the moment around performance versus brand marketing – indeed, we wrote a blog about it and it was a hot topic at the ANA Masters of Marketing last month. Wherever you land in the debate, the inescapable fact is that data allows us to understand customers like never before and optimise activity to their preferences in real time; this has inevitably led to a focus on the performance of our media activity. Sorrell even went as far as to say that scale is not the most important thing anymore, as you can ‘make entries at a reasonable cost’ in the digital and programmatic arena. This demonstrates the impact that technology has had on the industry, if the size of your budget is no longer the sole most important aspect of your marketing strategy.
One of the key ramifications of the rapid advance of technology in the marketing space is that it has taken power out of the hands of brands and put it into those of the consumer. It is now the consumer that calls the shots, and advertisers must respond by focusing on the consumer’s experience of their brand and being ‘always on’. This is at the heart of MediaMonks and, by extension, S4 Capital’s approach to communications: it’s no longer about
focusing on a big idea and creating 30-second spots. Brands and their agencies must consider how they can tell the best creative story across all platforms. This approach demands better, faster and more efficient content and, in Sorrell’s opinion, agencies aren’t responding quickly enough. This is the space that smaller, more agile companies like S4 can step into, as they come without the baggage of siloes, units and a plethora of agency brands.
Data is, of course, the major marketing story of the 21st century so far and has fundamentally transformed how marketers operate, opening up a world of possibility and the opportunity to connect more deeply with consumers. It has also, unfortunately, led to issues of trust between advertisers and their agency partners, and a concern about a lack of control. This in turn has led many brands to at least consider bringing some of their marketing services in house and S4 Capital will have an offering that helps them to do that, although Sorrell pointed out that it can be difficult culturally for organisations to keep themselves and their talent abreast of the ever-changing market dynamics.
It is telling that Sorrell and Knapp emphasised the importance of agility and consumer-centricity for S4 Capital. In the 80s, 90s and even 2000s, marketing was a very different affair and the role of the CMO was to relay stories to consumers on a one-way basis – and the likes of WPP, Omnicom and Publicis with their huge scale and buying power were well placed to support in that mission. However, technology has dramatically and fundamentally changed the landscape and the agencies that can respond rapidly in an agile, flexible manner are the ones who will stay relevant and useful for clients. This is clearly the space that Sorrell and Knapp are looking to occupy with S4 Capital, and we believe that they are well placed for success.
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