Q&A: ICF Next's James Wilkins on unifying all aspects of the business


Marketing agency ICF has recently rebranded and relaunched as ICF Next, connecting all aspects of the business under one unified brand name. The Drum Network caught up with ICF Next’s managing partner James Wilkins, to discuss why now was the right time to integrate all its services, how ICF Next is different and where he thinks the industry is headed.

Why did it feel like the right time to join ICF and launch ICF Next?

ICF Next felt like a natural next step for us. Over the last several years, ICF has expanded its marketing services business – organically and by acquisition. With this, we saw an opportunity to integrate in a way that would give us a more holistic offering, enable our teams to better serve clients, and support growth.

More and more, we see the need for our clients to engage with the people they serve – whether they are citizens, colleagues, consumers, or entire communities – through tech-forward, and insight-driven experiences that require more integrated solutions. If we can support our clients’ needs better and bring a handful of new services to them – they’ll be able to achieve their greatest potential.

Working as one brand, we’re able to provide cross-capability work for our clients, sharing best practices across both public and private sector work, and tapping into the breadth and depth of our global colleagues and subject matter experts. What can be better than that!?

What inspired this decision?

We naturally started to reshape our organisation to become more seamless – removing barriers to collaboration and focusing on engaging clients in a more holistic way. Our experience as both a consultancy and an agency made it feel like it was the right thing to do.

With ICF Next, we’re the game-changers in our industry. We have the right specialisms and drive to keep growing our relationships and delivering best-in-class solutions for clients. We’ve proven our expertise across the automotive, retail, financial, aviation and telecoms sectors to name a few, creating meaningful experiences and activating lasting behavioural change for some big names.

The idea of being able to bring together multiple teams from across ICF Next to address the growing needs of our clients is priceless for us. While a client may only work with us in one or two areas today, they’ll now have the benefit of being able to quickly tap into a wider set of connected expertise, capabilities and resources over time and as their needs arise.

And what was the thinking behind having a strong presence in Leeds?

Leeds and Yorkshire is thriving and full of impressive, challenging and diverse talent. And I say that as a Southerner! It has one of the fastest growing technology sectors in the UK, with arguably the biggest financial and business centre outside of London.

So many brands call Leeds home, from ITV, Sky, William Hill and even Channel 4, who are relocating to the city. And as one of the cities that generates the highest number of creative industry jobs – it feels good to play our part in this. Not forgetting, our ability to access talent from all walks of life, combined with the commercial benefits meant it was a no brainer and has been core to our success and will continue to be.

What key trends have you seen emerge in the last year across the agency and marketing landscape?

In the past year, we’ve seen an increase in the convergence between consultancies and creative agencies trying to merge their worlds together – with consulting firms boosting their design and digital skills and creative agencies adding consulting to their offering. This has meant we’ve seen an increasing number of clients looking for agencies that can offer a broader range of capabilities to help consolidate spend.

I think that’s also why the idea of co-creation has really taken off. As clients’ needs demand a broader range of capabilities, combining skills is essential to delivering work that hits briefs with maximum impact. More and more, we see mixed teams with diverse backgrounds and talents pulled together to problem-solve.

I’d say another key trend is definitely driving customer loyalty by engaging employees. It’s absolutely crucial! As employees interact with customers every day, they often directly control customer engagement and satisfaction. Service at the front – whether good or bad – impacts customer engagement and ultimately, customer loyalty. I think it’s absolutely critically to prepare and engage frontline employees in delivering a successful loyalty program.

How do you anticipate the agency and marketing landscape to evolve going forward?

Going forward, I think we are going to see further consolidation in the industry. For example, holding companies will continue to reframe themselves and restructure further in the next 12-24 months.

I also think we’re going to see a huge increase on the focus of experience and linking back to analytics. What I mean by that is work these days must be measurable and data driven. Brands and marketers are constantly on the lookout to prove ROI, and they expect their agencies – whether creative, digital, CRM, experiential – to deliver beyond experiences and move into authentic engagement that is measurably impacting the business across KPIs.

James Wilkins, Managing partner at ICF Next.

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