Who says the future needs an advertising agency? We do.

The term “agency of the future” is used so much that it’s become meaningless. Pick up any copy of Ad Age. You’ll read about the demise of the traditional agency and the emergence of. . . well, take your pick. With so many different visions of the future floating about, you have to wonder if anyone is really looking very hard. It’s easy to critique today’s agency. It’s a wee bit tougher to say what will or should evolve over the next five years.

So, just what does the future hold for the agency business? Ascentium believes the so-called “agency of the future” will enable a brand to create and nurture experiences for its customers. Advertising creates awareness. Experiences create, and keep, customers.

“Agency of the future” is really a misconception. What will actually change is this: A client’s budget will be divided across different agencies, with different business models, because execution is very different in the traditional and digital worlds. Agencies will continue to exist across the entire spectrum, but the era of the massive media spend as the only way of reaching customers is over.

In the digital world and in the real world, experiences are the way brands will attract, retain, and expand their customer bases.

So what makes for a game-changing experience?

It is tribal and relevant, rather than popular, irrelevant, and forgettable. Check out the Facebook page of anyone under 40 and you’ll see how bonded we’ve become within our tribes. We define ourselves through our friends, our social interactions, our shared interests, and our shared consumption. Turned on by a company’s product or service? There’s a Facebook group devoted to it, from Coca-Cola to the smallest microbrew. It’s never been easier to connect with fans of your product—or find the most scathing reviews by those who can’t stand it. Communities are tribal and virtual, not homogeneous and geographic. That’s why newspapers are closing. They’re not tribal. And if you’re not tribal, you’re irrelevant.

It is experiential, participatory and voluntary, rather than verbal, literal, and interruptive. The future belongs to those brands that actually engage their customers rather than those that lecture them. To be sure, we’ll still have a world of television, radio, and print (not to mention online advertising) for a long time, but consumers are increasingly demanding a more engaging and interactive experience. Love them or hate them, Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are all creating a participatory world where our tribe knows in great detail where we go, what we do, and what we buy. Is your brand creating iPhone, iPad, or Facebook apps yet? If not, it’s time to start.

It is entertainment: a game. It’s nothing new to say that you can sell your product by making it fun. You can also create great buzz around a product by making it the centerpiece of a game. Ascentium has created game apps for a wide variety of clients, from technology to retail to public utilities. Society teaches children the most abstract of ideas by using games. And even the most humdrum of products can be made attractive by entertainment.

It is found rather than delivered. You are much more likely to succeed when your customers find your product on their own or, better still, are told about it by their friends. You have little credibility when talking about your own product; your customers have total credibility when recommending it to others in their tribe. But how do you get them to find it? Social media is a part of the answer. In the future, your product may well be introduced through a blog, on YouTube, or a form of social media that does not as yet exist. It’s up to your agency to find the channels that work for you.

It is multi-channel, from traditional media, to web media—across the boundary of the real and virtual worlds. It amazes us how few companies have figured out how to launch a campaign that crosses seamlessly between the real and virtual worlds. Last year’s White Rabbit campaign to promote the Syfy Channel’s movie Alice was a nice exception to the norm. The White Rabbit was literally popping up both on the web and in the form of 50 dancing White Rabbits in New York’s Union Square. Granted, it was aimed at science fiction and fantasy fans, who are more acclimated to the virtual world than most. Regardless, it was an attention-grabber that had everyone in the tribe talking.

So while it’s true the future isn’t what it used to be, there’s already a new kind of agency out there. Advertising will always create awareness. But conversion will be monopolized by the craft of creating experiences.  And the future will belong to agencies that create experiences—not advertising.

Curt Doolittle and Steven Salta

Founders, Ascentium Corporation

Ascentium Corporation, The Experience Agency™, has offices in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Spokane, and London. Visit us on-line at www.ascentium.com.

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About Steven Salta

Steven Salta is co-founder and CEO of Ascentium, a digital media and interactive marketing agency. Steven has overall responsibility for the agency's revenue, profitability, customer loyalty, and corporate culture.

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