From the Agency Perspective: Direct-to-Consumer: A Revolutionary New Concept?

February 14, 2019

By Marsha Appel


The initials 'DTC' have begun to pop up all over the marketing literature. Until recently, they meant one thing and one thing only: direct-to-consumer advertising by prescription drug brands. But now this DTC term refers to products marketed and delivered direct-to-consumers. This new idea has to do with brands that were born digital, designed to be marketed online, bypass retailers, and be sold DTC.


What DTC Brands Are All About

While there are some similarities to the internet companies of 2000-2002, there are striking differences in this new generation of DTC brands. What's different now is that data, technology, and an unrelenting focus on customer experience have been thrown into the mix:

  • The new direct-to-consumer brands generally start digital and offer a seamless buying experience with speedy delivery.
  • Engagement and sharing are baked into the core product strategy.
  • Customer feedback and reviews left on the brand's website enable one-to-one interaction with users.
  • The real kicker is the quantity and quality of first-party customer data created.
  • Brands end up with a deep and invaluable understanding of the path to purchase, which can inform subsequent communications choices.

There is also an intrinsic hipness to these disruptive brands. Millennials sense that these products were developed for and by their generation. The new DTC brands include such successes as Casper, Everlane, Harry's, and Warby Parker, and there are myriad startups eager to emulate them.


What This Means for Agencies

There is one other feature that characterizes these startups. That same aversion to utilizing traditional distribution channels and intermediaries also signifies a preference for prioritizing in-house operations over outsourcing, and therein lies a problem for the traditional client-agency relationship model. The good news is that many of these startups recognize that they cannot do everything themselves. There is an opportunity to act. Agencies that can figure out how to align with these startups and their business needs can become critical partners to DTC brands as they grow.

Traditional agencies excel at building mass reach for giant national brands. However, the new digital native startups require different skill sets.

According to creative agency Gin Lane CEO Nick Lane, who helped to launch Hims and Everlane, working with startups is different from working with large established brands, and an agency cannot easily do both well. "But we'd rather be a sushi knife than a Swiss Army knife and be really good at one thing versus average at everything."

For an agency, it's necessary to be iterative and as responsive as possible, because these new companies often morph into something else between the time they bring the concept to an agency and the actual launch. A brand voice must be developed and scaled, and content created to apply that voice consistently.

New types of agencies are emerging that specialize in the different services required by the new direct-to-consumer brands. The new models incorporate one or more of the following activities:

  • Becoming an extension of the client's business and getting paid on the basis of a brand's growth: outcome-based marketing
  • Filling holes in the client's business and solving for various problems faced, depending on the stage of the brand's growth – from developing a website to consulting on back-end shipping problems
  • Sharing in risks and rewards of startups by taking a stake in client companies as a significant part of the agency's compensation
  • Creating their own DTC brand to understand the startup experience and thus be able to claim expertise in it
  • Developing versatility in bridging traditional and DTC clients


What's Next for These DTC Brands and the Agency Business?

For traditional agencies finding it difficult to transform quickly into the nimble operations demanded by DTC brands, there is an optimistic note here, too. As the DTC digital natives grow, they are starting to find that mastering social is not enough in the long term — there is evidence that they are starting to turn to agencies for help with traditional media communications. BarkBox, the dog-treat subscription service, handles creative in-house, but it turned to an agency holding company's performance marketing arm for TV buying and planning. According to Bark CMO Jay Livingston, "You'll see a rush toward agencies. To put an integrated campaign out there and buy across media, it's complex and expensive. Most DTC companies cannot do that internally. Agencies help you with that." But that's not justification for sitting by complacently to wait for them. The landscape has definitely changed permanently, and the sooner agencies adapt and embrace this new type of client, the better.

The agencies specializing in servicing this new breed of client have recognized that down the road, these companies may eventually build or internalize the marketing services they need and dispense with any external assistance. If that comes to pass, instead of becoming obsolete, these agencies are assuming that the expertise they've developed will serve them well in aiding large legacy brands scrambling to compete in this new environment.

While that sounds like additional competition encroaching on their turf, traditional agencies may have a leg up here. As legacy brand clients struggle to develop an online footprint and adapt their positioning and brand image to a new marketing and distribution platform, they'll need help. Who better than an agency that intimately knows their history, their operations, and their vertical industry, and also knows where they need to go and how to get there? The more an agency can guide them through that process and bring the necessary tools, particularly in digital, data, and analytics, the more valued they will be.


This blog was originally published by the 4A's. The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

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