Portland, OR, March 6, 2020 — Vanessa was honored to be recently interviewed by Deltek, a leading global provider of enterprise software and information solutions for project-based businesses, as part of Women’s History Month. Here’s the text of their interview!

In advertising agencies of all sizes, only around 39% of executive roles are held by women. In honor of Women’s History Month, we wanted to feature one of these pioneering female leaders. We sat down with Vanessa Vollum Edwards, President of Creative Performance, Inc., to tap into her wealth of knowledge on how the industry got where it is today, and where it is headed in 2020.

Introducing Vanessa Vollum Edwards

Hailing from Portland, OR, Vanessa is a management consultant for the marketing services industry.

A helicopter and fixed-wing pilot since sixteen, she began her first career as a pilot for LifeFlight. It was here that she was first exposed to, and learned the value of, systems-based training, integrated systems, and the necessity of maintaining composure under life and death situations. She ended her career in corporate aviation as one of the youngest triple-engine-jet, type-rated pilots in the country.

Upon completing her MBA, she and a classmate co-founded a digital agency, that experienced five years of explosive growth before its acquisition in 2010. As the COO/CFO, she was tasked with finding a “middle way” that balanced the needs of Financial Operations with Creative, Culture and the Client.

For the last decade, Vanessa and her team have helped over a hundred agencies and in-house teams select and adopt agency management software, navigate complex organizational change and embrace business intelligence to improve organizational agility and value.

Q: What is the biggest trend in the last ten years that has changed the agency industry?

Wow. That is a very large and open-ended question, one that I could spend days talking about. When I first entered the industry fifteen years ago, it was the emergence of smartphones, digital marketing, social media, and marketing automation that introduced massive disruption. I know, I know… I totally just dated myself.

Over the last decade, these disruptive technologies led to an explosion of marketing channels and extremely complex, integrated campaigns. Some digitally native agencies really jumped on these trends; many others struggled.

In the last five years, we have noticed a rather dramatic shift regarding marketing accountability.

This has forced agencies to adopt systems, technologies, and processes that many believe are disruptive to the creative process. I’ve spent the last decade focused on this challenge, trying to operationally improve and modernize agencies.

Today, we are starting to see the impact of consultancies like Accenture, IBM, etc., making inroads into both strategy and digital. The impact of this is already being felt globally. However, I think the real news is the rapid rise of the in-house agency, and the emergence of the “hybrid agency” model.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you see on the horizon for digital and advertising agencies in 2020?

Great question, and without being too nerdy here, I look at things from a structural vs. cyclical perspective. From a cyclical perspective, I believe we are clearly heading into an economic downturn…or possibly a recession by the end of 2020. I actually started a video series in Q2 of 2019 focused on preparing your agency for an economic downturn in 2020.

In a recent article titled “Beyond the Downturn,” Bain Consulting surveyed 3,900 companies regarding the 2008 recession and found that best-in-class companies thrived during the recession, and held onto their gains post-recession. Magic? No, they simply prepared and focused on their core operational and financial fundamentals prior to the recession. Fascinating stuff, and I strongly suggest taking a look at the article as many of their insights apply to our industry.

Speaking of core operational and financial fundamentals, agencies are going to face continued and ongoing rate margin pressure. Remember, brands are shifting their inefficiencies onto their agency partners, and in turn, agencies must adapt workflows, processes, and technologies to improve their ability to scope, intake and produce work that is both profitable and meets client’s expectations.

Now for the elephant in the room. Even if you have taken care of your core operational and financial fundamentals, agencies are going to be fighting over less total available work. In an effort to “own the customer experience,” increase response times and drive down costs, in-house agencies are slowly chipping away at work being passed along to their agency partners. In the past, in-house had challenges acquiring and retaining high-value talent. That is no longer the case. However, there is an opportunity for agencies and in-house to collaborate harmoniously.  Many are calling this the “hybrid” approach.

[Note: We’ll hear more on recession-proofing your agency in a blog from Vanessa in a few months. Stay tuned!]

Q: What are the three important ways for agencies to leverage data in 2020?

Ok, I’m going to say something controversial here. Next to its employees, culture, and clients, the most important asset an agency owns is its financial and operational data. Unfortunately, most don’t know how to structure and leverage this critical and hidden asset. So why does this matter? I believe that our industry’s last sustainable competitive advantage is organizational agility, which enables agencies to quickly respond to market conditions, competitors, the economy and new disruptive technologies. Data fluency is the precursor to agility. Unfortunately, we are the last major industry and business discipline to understand this.

My team and I have spent the last five years trying to unravel this data Gordian Knot. The challenge is not finding out “what” happened, but rather “why” things happened and “how” to leverage data insights to improve the speed and quality of strategic planning.

And by business intelligence, I don’t mean static, non-connected metrics and KPI’s; rather, I’m talking about rich, connected data that helps improve performance over time, explore opportunities and that aligns leadership teams around a common set of goals.

Q: What are your top tips for improving efficiency at agencies?

Ok, here are my Top 10:

  1. Recognize that process is not the enemy of culture and creativity; chaos is
  2. Embrace a “balanced tension” mindset between client, culture and creative
  3. Build an effective PMO department
  4. Build and empower a robust PM discipline
  5. Make sure PM reports to Accounting, not Client Services
  6. Adopt best practice workflows and architectures
  7. Address the “scoping shockwave” that kills profit and culture
  8. Invest in agency management software
  9. Use your software investment in a manner that creates clean data
  10. Leverage data insights to refine processes and improve profit

So, my final tip is that leadership must realize that numbers 1-10 are interconnected and build on each other.