Marketing Briefing: Agencies see more RFPs for brand building amid ‘recalibration’ of marketers’ priorities

This Marketing Briefing covers the latest in marketing for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

In recent years, marketers were putting more emphasis on performance marketing, proving efficiencies of ad budgets and retooling creative to tout value amid economic uncertainty. More recently though, marketers have shifted focus back to brand building and they’re looking for help with things like brand affinity, brand strategy, brand identity and brand refreshes and redesigns as they plan to invest more in brand channels, according to agency executives and search consultants, who say they’ve seen more requests for proposals seeking partners for brand building over the last few months and even the last year. 

That’s not to say that marketers are less interested in performance marketing — they, of course, still want those wins — but it’s more that they’re interested in a more holistic approach now. The marketplace has shifted. The economic uncertainty of recent years isn’t as tense for some, which allows those brands to open the aperture and consider brand needs along with performance marketing. At the same time, the increasingly fragmented digital landscape makes it more difficult for marketers to win online now with solely performance tactics, so they’re thinking about how they can help their brands stand out. 

“There is definitely a recalibration going on, especially in what we’re seeing in North America for new business opportunities,” said JJ Schmuckler, global chief growth officer at VML, who added that in previous years there was more of an emphasis on driving performance. While he said performance marketing is not “negated in any way, shape or form” there is an “impetus of client asks starting along the lines of help us refresh, reinvent, create new programs.” 

Marketers’ asks vary, but overall there’s a sense from agency execs and search consultants that marketers are seeing the value of brand as a tool more so now and looking to invest in branding to help them in today’s marketplace. 

“It’s an intangible asset on the balance sheet,” Ken Robinson, partner at search consultancy Ark Advisors, said of brand efforts, adding that his firm has seen more RFPs focused on brand in the last 18 months than in the last 18 years of his career. 

Not all the RFPs prioritizing brand — whatever that means for the marketer behind it — are searching for ad agencies to help them, though. Several of the brand-focused searches Ark Advisors has run have been seeking brand consultancy partners. 

The difficulty of standing out in the marketplace is likely a major factor in the recalibration that marketers are making now when it comes to brand, explained Trevor Guthrie, co-founder of Giant Spoon, who also noted that his shop has seen four RFPs recently focused on brand. 

For pitch consultancy AAR Partners, when it comes to the majority of reviews conducted throughout 2023, “all we ever heard was we need to build brand affinity or brand advocacy or brand love,” noted Lisa Colantuono, president at AAR Partners. This year, “I believe it’s gonna be a combination of brand and demand where the top of the funnel and the bottom of the funnel are gonna collapse in the middle,” Colantuono added.

How that shakes out will depend on the marketer. The recognition of the importance of brand now is clear. 

“CMOs are realizing the importance of more long-term thinking and are seeking partners for this,” said Greg Paull, partner at search consultancy R3. “While there has been a continual rise of specialist agencies in social, data and e-commerce, finding a partner who can help delineate the soul of a brand has never been more essential.” 

3 Questions with Nate Schlimme, CMO of direct-to-consumer drink brand Moss

What’s the strategy behind launching a new brand in a crowded DTC market?

We wanted to introduce ourselves and learn, first and foremost. The use of sea moss as an existing practice has been around for a long time. So as we introduced ourselves with a new spin on it, we went to those existing, value-aligned communities to really build that audience at a grassroots level. The first step was introducing ourselves and learning, and then going out and getting feedback, and listening and testing products. From there, it’s who are the value-aligned communities that we want to partner with. We wanted to build that trust and grow our audience from grassroots movement to the global stage. 

DTCs have notoriously been reliant on Google and Meta. How are you managing a soon-to-be cookie-less environment? 

From a general marketing standpoint, those are two platforms that of course we’re going to utilize, but they’re not the only way that we’re getting the word out. There’s a strong retail strategy. There are platforms like TikTok, there is Pinterest, there’s YouTube. What we’ve been doing this past summer and fall is really talking to people and learning from them, and being able to talk about the different use cases of the product and so on.

Moss’s co-founder is actor, producer and director Michael B. Jordan. How does having a big celebrity name help with marketing efforts?

Mike has been involved with the company from day one. He had the concept for the company. At the end of the day, he wants to use his platform to amplify voices, whether it be community groups, creators, craftspeople. He has an amazing platform, a really strong audience. — Kimeko McCoy

By the numbers

TikTok has been the social media golden child, giving Meta a run for its money when it comes to the creator economy and user attention. In terms of ad spend, however, TikTok is raking up just a small portion in comparison to its competitor Meta. The short-form video app could stand to usurp more by catching the attention of small- and mid-size businesses — more than half of which said they’ve found positive return on investment on TikTok, surpassing Instagram and Facebook, according to a survey from software company Capterra. Key findings from the report below: 

  • 77% of small- and medium-sized business (SMBs) on TikTok said sales attributable to the platform have increased in the past year, with 23% reporting a significant increase.
  • Among SMBs that market on TikTok and at least one Meta platform, 96% said they get the most engagement on TikTok.
  • 71% of small businesses, including retailers and restaurants, will increase their TikTok marketing spend next year — up from 52% last year. Among SMBs who’ve achieved ROI, they receive it in an average of just five months (up from six months in 2023). — Kimeko McCoy

Quote of the week

“There are lots of places where it’s becoming, especially in this digital landscape, where it can be very, very, very hard to actually get someone to notice. Another way of putting it is, it’s easier to convince them of something like [direct mail] now than it would have been two years ago or three years ago.”

— Ned Brown, chief creative officer at Bader Rutter agency, on why some brands are reconsidering direct mail as a channel now.

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