Sizing up Forrester Wave for lead agencies

I recently reviewed The Forrester Wave: Lead Agencies, Q4 2016 report, and was disappointed to see that the “Market Presence” filter that Forrester analysts had applied to their lead agencies, forbade the inclusion of any small or mid-sized agencies in their report. 

As the leader of an agency with approximately 50 people that has consistently garnered Small Agency of the Year recognition from publications like Ad Age, iMedia and BMA, I of course, take issue with this. I believe that we have the talent and experience that matches with many of the eight agencies profiled in Forrester’s report… with the added benefit that brands know that they’ll never get the B-team at an agency that simply doesn’t have one. 

But what I believe and what I can prove are distinct entities, so I thought I would take a moment to provide an honest and reflective self-assessment of Traction based on Forrester’s criteria. Are we indeed an agency suit to provide marketers guidance in what Forrester describes as the “Post-Digital Age?”

The report begins, “The confluence of entitled customers and digital ubiquity is forcing marketers to broaden beyond advertising to solve customer needs in a way that is human, helpful, and handy.” 

At Traction, we have knowledge and experience that can turn consumer insight into action by bringing together psychology and technology to create experiences and content designed for the needs of today’s digital customer. Beyond advertising? Check. Human, helpful and handy? Check.

Whew. 

Forrester goes on to describe three key needs for marketers. Here they are, along with a description of how Traction stacks up:

  1. Undiscovered insights that tap human emotion and motivation. Post-digital marketers must be more anthropologist and psychologist than mere storyteller to unearth (and exploit) authentic motivators in a consumer’s journey. Reliance on unsubstantiated tropes of “universal human insight” won’t stand up to the complexity of how people really choose.

    At Traction, psychology and technology rank high in our toolkit for surfacing authentic human insight. We have used sophisticated research techniques like conflict analysis focus groups where we bring together groups of diametrically opposed consumers to see what messages and arguments they use to resolve conflict. We’ve also made investments in innovative tools like the Resonate marketing intelligence platform that identify customer segments in real-time, and surfaces values-based insight based on far-reaching survey data.

    That said, I poo-poo the dismissive regard for “mere storytellers” we see here. At Traction, we approach analytics as storytelling. Numbers are important, but Traction believes in telling the story around the data. We always strive to get beyond just showing "numbers." We talk about what matters.

    I also reject the notion that “unsubstantiated tropes of ‘universal human insight’” cannot be valid. Sometimes, an observation about human behavior can spark a brilliant insight that changes fortunes for brands. Sometimes, you need to put aside your spreadsheets and trust your gut.
     
  2. Approaches to build experiences beyond advertising. While some brands think experience equals website, others are investing in ways to provide utility to customers wherever they are, online or off, pre- or post-purchase.

    This one got me all excited, saying to myself, “Nailed it!”

    There’s a reason we describe ourselves as providers of experiences and content, and not as an advertising agency. We do create advertising, but we approach every marketing challenge with the philosophy that marketing must be something that customers want to consume—or they will simply ignore it.

    Right now, today, down the hall from where I sit, Traction is helping brands build experiences beyond advertising (and beyond websites). Whether it’s helping the world’s most successful retail technology brand integrate the digital and physical worlds to provide customers with a better shopping experience; designing a more sophisticated interaction model to improve the customer experience of one of the most heavily used banking apps on the planet; helping an entertainment start-up create a product, brand and go-to-market strategy to penetrate culture in a mobile-first world; or creating content people actually liked that helped the largest computer seller in the world increase engagement with their b2b customers by 3X…

    I could go on, but I won’t. This is where we live.
     
  3. Ways of working that make collaboration fast and easy. Post-digital marketers must work with teams that engage the consumer beyond advertising touchpoints.

    When I read this, I scoffed at the notion of big agency marketing heads talking to analysts about how Slack has changed the way they work forever.

    As a small agency, being nimble and collaborative is simply easier. At the office, our ways of working that make collaboration fast and easy are things like walking over to someone’s desk and asking a question, having media, creative and development working sessions as part of our process, or simply using chat.

Agencies With Digital Heritage Take The Lead

Forrester went on to state, “Dissatisfied with non-integrated, advertising-focused approaches, brands are pursuing non-traditional partners to serve as lead agency,” and that “Agencies with ‘digital’ roots have jumped at this opportunity and are proving themselves most adept at leading client rosters in the post-digital age.”

More magic quadrant points for Traction! We have been a digital-first agency, thinking holistically about the customer journey for 15 years. Leaders in the report shared high marks for 5 key attributes:

  1. Innovative uses of data to develop insights. Forward-thinking lead agencies tap into both big and small data to discover unanticipated moments of truth and customer motivation.

    For Lenovo, Traction combined comScore (i.e. “big”) data to identify sites most popular with an IT audience with a digital qual/quant study on one of those sites to identify the insight that IT guys have a love-hate relationship with “users.” That insight has been at the core of a content creation that has transformed Lenovo’s b2b marketing.
     
  2. Brand experience capabilities. Many agencies talk “customer experience,” but truly qualified lead agencies master specific customer experience proficiencies, such as customer journey mapping and ethnographic research, to craft useful experiences.

    Not only are we applying customer journey mapping and research techniques (as I mentioned in a bunch of examples above), we’ve invested in having members of our strategy team participate in Forrester’s customer journey mapping workshops to enhance our methodology.
     
  3. Honed approaches to partner orchestration. Marketers don’t look to lead agencies to micromanage other agencies, but rather to orchestrate across partners.

    Well, since this is an honest and reflective self-assessment, I’ll have to say that our expertise in this area is limited to pockets. For example, we regularly oversee SEO partner agencies; we’ve partnered with firms to do back-end production when platforms we don’t have in-house expertise in are requirements (.NET for example); and we have creatively provided editorial oversight to outsourced content marketing partners for things like blog posts or white papers.

    That said, we have limited experience orchestrating the creative output of other agencies. Perhaps this is an area with room for growth.

    Fortunately, in Forrester’s report, only 22% of clients interviewed cited managing other agencies as “extremely important.”
     
  4. A commitment to building a productive and dynamic culture. Positive culture creates a virtuous cycle that attracts and retains the best people by putting them in a healthy environment where they can repeatedly produce the best ideas. Top lead agencies thoughtfully shape recruiting and employee engagement and clearly outline shared values and expected behaviors.


When we defined our corporate goals this year, “Maintaining a Culture of Awesomeness” was one of our three primary objectives.  Our mission statement is “to be a respected agency where the experience getting there is as great as the work itself,” so providing a great environment to nurture talent has been a great priority. 

Evidence of this can be found in our average employee tenure of 4.5 years. That’s more than double industry averages, so we’re quite proud of this. 

We’ve also gone through the exercise in the past year of revisiting and redefining our values and creating a laddered agency goal system that clearly defines behaviors that connect to them. So, while we have always had a unique creative culture, we saw room for improvement and have taken steps to make it even better. We’re already seeing increased productivity and employee engagement as a result of it.

Traction as a lead agency

Finally, I took great pleasure in noting that when denoting its inclusion criteria, it cited, “Traction as a lead agency working across traditional and digital channels.”

Was that a Jedi mind trick? Did they not forget us after all?

I’ll let you decide if Forrester would be with us, but I’m pretty sure that the Force is.

March 7, 2017
Traction Digital Agency

Traction is an award-winning agency based in San Francisco that believes everything is interactive. And we kick ass.