In less than one week, Forrester's Forum For Marketing Leaders (April 29-30) kicks off in London. In addition to industry thought leaders from the likes of adidas, BBC, Eurostar, and Royal Bank of Scotland, we will be hearing from Nigel Vaz, Senior Vice President & European Managing Director at SapientNitro. During the panel session, "The Future Of Agency and Brand Relationship," Nigel and fellow experts will be discussing the role of agencies in helping brands succeed in the age of the customer.

In the run-up to the forum, I caught up with Nigel to get his perspective on the key challenges and trends in the agency-brand relationship. Here's what he shared with me, and do join Nigel at the forum to get the full story.

Q: How do you see the age of the customer impacting your clients' businesses?

A: The emergence of a whole new consumer group with different behaviours, expectations, and requirements has been fascinating to watch. This group of digitally empowered consumers own multiple devices and are online frequently throughout the day from multiple physical locations. Essentially, the adoption and usage of technology is more advanced among these leading consumers than is the case at many companies which seek to serve them. They expect brands to meet them in those places and spaces at a time of their choosing and for the experience to be consistent, wherever the touchpoint may be.

For clients, the need now is to understand that a linear approach to engaging consumers is no longer relevant and to begin to transform their businesses so consumer relevance and experience meet expectations. Marketers should now focus on transitioning from the traditional marketing funnel to the customer life cycle and must understand at what stage in the cycle marketing programs are most relevant, focus on information flows at customer hand-over points, and adopt cross-cycle metrics to foster company-wide customer obsession. Business such as Apple, Amazon, and Google have done just that – set new standards of service and experience that have a customer-obsessed strategy at their core.

Q: What are some of the key challenges your clients are facing as a result?

A: The underlying challenge is that consumers and the technology they wield are forcing businesses to adapt – rapidly and fundamentally. This is a company-wide challenge that forces them to question previously held assumptions:

  • Brand promise and authenticity – Historically it was possible for a brand to say one thing but to do and be something else. There was a separation between the story you told and delivery of that promise. Today’s consumers demand that what you say and do are consistent. And they are informed and equipped to take to task those companies that fail to connect the experience.
  • The experience your customer has is the most reliable measure of brand performance; increasingly, experience is the glue between brand promise, technology, and operational capability. Bringing these elements together in a cohesive, effective way will be a key success factor for businesses over the coming years.
  • Measuring and reporting on ROI – Another big challenge with marketers is ROI, and it's more important than ever to show the value in what you do. Whilst most set out with solid objectives with associated KPIs, marketers have to be able to ‘flex’ the interpretation of data coming from several different environments to make it meaningful and digestible. Delivering consistent measurement across a multitude of channels and geographies remains a continuous challenge, particularly where boards demand short-term results. In fact, speaking with a few of my clients and with James McQuivey at Forrester, the term ROI seems a bit obsolete now, given all the market forces and the fundamental shift in the role of marketing, which should now be measured as return on disruption or return on innovation.
  • Executive responsibility and digital talent – the organisational change required to meet empowered and digitally enabled consumers is a real challenge for businesses. Whom do you equip to lead this change – the CMO, CTO, or a hybrid CMTO – as the only true way marketing can connect to technology? Companies also need to ensure that they have a recruitment and training process that equips them with a talent profile better geared to adapt to this disruptive era and the consumer expectations that drive it.

Q: What would be your main piece of advice to brands wanting to overcome these challenges?

A: Understand and act on the reality that being in business today, with the impact of digital technologies and empowered consumers, is that nothing stands still for a day. Businesses need to start on a journey to transform accordingly; while the need is immediate, at least as important is the recognition that progress is iterative and there is no short-term fix. The nature of how consumers experience brands is changing, and brands must change with it. In the age of the customer, this means moving beyond just telling brand stories. Every interaction is the message of the brand – physical experiences of it, digital interactions, and emotional triggers from communications.

Q: What are the main trends you are seeing in the brand-agency relationship? What has changed over the years?

It’s clear that the role of agencies has changed fundamentally over the years; while there is still a need for agencies to engage consumers emotionally with strong creative ideas, the places and spaces in which brands must connect with consumers has radically expanded the definition of communications. That said, the era when digital agencies were some kind of stopgap solution to address a shortage of digital talent within clients’ marketing department is drawing to a close. The shift now is for agencies to take on a more top-level consulting role that helps clients to reimagine what their business will look like in a digital era, and then to execute against the innovation, products, experience, and campaigns that entails.

Learn more from Nigel Vaz and other marketing leaders at Forrester's Forum For Marketing Leaders in London on April 29-30.