This time last year, UK advertising spend passed £20 billion per year, growing at its fastest rate since 2010. Nearly half of that spend (£8.6 billion) was funneled directly into digital channels, which by its very definition requires, creates and uses data in some form or another.

With marketing budgets forecasted to grow throughout 2017, according to Gartner’s 2016 CMO Survey, it’s clear that marketers will need to continue taking a data-first approach to develop a more detailed understanding of customers.

Focus on data

Data is nothing new. Both brands and agencies have used it to drive business transformation for decades. Database marketing, for example, emerged in the 1980s and was a huge step forward in improving a brand’s ability to create multi-channel campaigns. Now we’re entering a world where programmatic continues to grow – it’s expected to increase by 31% this year alone – and artificial intelligence and automation are much closer to realising their potential. All of this means that this data-first approach is not just essential for marketers but also for entire organisations looking to maintain or create a competitive advantage.

However, the creation of this way of working has led to a fundamental change in both agency and brand culture. Teams now not only need to understand the data they’re looking at and then correctly interpret it in order to create actionable insights; they need to find simple ways to present it to the wider business. For this to work effectively across large organisations that often have multiple data silos or internals barriers and resistance to change, data has to be demystified and democraticised.

There are a number of ways that businesses can do this, but a good first step would be to remove jargon, acronyms and buzzwords to make data more accessible to the average end user. This will create more transparency and enable departments to better leverage data to drive genuine business transformation.

Brands ultimately want to increase profitability, and this is where data can be crucial in helping to capture, measure and analyse information from a huge range of internal and external touchpoints. This is when the relationship between brands and agencies moves from being transactional to a more consultative approach, where both companies can get their hands dirty and work together to create the best outcomes.

Looking ahead

Much has been written about the future of the agency, and yes, some – if not most – will have to rethink their business models as the media landscape continues to evolve. But, agencies are extremely well-placed to continue working with brands due to the level of customer insight and expertise they possess. They know their client’s business challenges better than most and therefore know the right questions to ask of the data available to them. Whether you are an engineer, a developer or an analyst, the most valuable insight will always be knowing what problem needs to be solved and what questions need to be answered.

That’s not to mention that at the core of many great agencies is great talent and capability around data analytics and digital marketing. Using years of experience, agencies are brilliantly placed to conquer long-standing business truths and shape the communication strategy to cause business change.

If brands are looking to create excellent and stand-out campaigns that deliver genuine cut-through in their market, they need to not only utilise the talent they have in-house but also lean on their partners, be them media agencies or ad tech specialists.

Ultimately, there has to be trust between brands and agencies to help achieve their objectives and challenge the status quo. It might sound like an easy feat, but adopting this on an organisation-wide scale is an extremely difficult undertaking without the right talent to help you do it effectively.

If brands and agencies can work together to leverage internal and external data, then both will be able to future-proof their businesses and attract the best talent to keep their organisations moving forward.