As the CEO of Hawke Media, I’ve witnessed the digital revolution and now the shift to AI in marketing firsthand. It’s an exciting time, but it’s also a time of significant change — and not everyone is keeping up.
In particular, traditional creative agencies are struggling to match the pace set by performance marketing agencies. And there’s a good reason for this shift.
The Old Guard vs. the New Kids
Creative agencies have long been the darlings of the marketing world. These are the teams that dream up big-picture concepts, like the Geico gecko or the Energizer bunny. They’re masters of storytelling, brand building and creating memorable campaigns. When I think of creative agencies, I think of the kinds of jobs every dad seemed to have in the movies in the Eighties and Nineties. It was vague, it seemed fun, it could keep them busy or free… whatever the script needed.
But in the digital age, this model is showing its limitations.
Enter performance marketing agencies.
These agencies specialize in the nitty-gritty details of specific marketing channels — think SEO, paid media, content, affiliate marketing, email and SMS campaigns. They’re data-driven, hyper-focused and committed to delivering tangible, measurable results.
If you’re putting these characters in a movie, it’ll look more like The Matrix than some family comedy. These experts are deep in the weeds, with knowledge that the person across the hall from them wouldn’t have because that person is specialized in a different service. These folks can be big-idea thinkers but are most comfortable at a campaign level rather than a brand identity level.
Unlike their creative counterparts, performance agencies aren’t just about coming up with clever ideas. They’re about executing those ideas effectively and efficiently, using every tool at their disposal.
The Digital Shift
The shift towards performance marketing has been driven by the digital revolution. Today’s consumers are online, and they’re savvy. They don’t just want to be told a story — they want to engage with it, share it and feel a part of it.
Performance marketing agencies understand this. They know how to leverage the power of digital channels to create interactive, immersive experiences. They can track every click, every conversion and every customer journey, using this data to optimize their strategies in real time.
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Why Performance Marketers Set the Pace
There are several reasons why creative marketing agencies may struggle to keep up with performance marketing agencies in the digital age.
First, there’s the challenge of over-promising and under-delivering. Creative agencies can highlight big wins they’ve had with other clients, but creative ideas live or die on the brand’s identity. It will work for some and not for others. Plus creativity is elusive, so even if your brand looks a lot like Geico, the gecko idea is a kind of lightning that won’t strike twice. Meanwhile, performance markers operate on a campaign level and can adjust their findings in real time to deliver the best results.
Next, many creative agencies do not fully understand the businesses they work with. Without a deep understanding of the client’s business, it’s difficult to create effective marketing strategies. In contrast, performance marketing agencies tend to be more data-driven, allowing them to tailor their strategies to the specific needs of their clients. They A/B test and adjust strategies to accommodate the industry. At agencies like mine, we’ve worked with just about every kind of company you can imagine, but even a brand new kind of client can benefit from performance marketing agencies because that model allows for faster learning.
Most obviously, performance agencies are trackable. With digital ads and performance marketing, you can track every click, conversion and customer journey… then personalize it per user.
Even the demise of the third-party cookie has ultimately helped benefit performance marketers over creative agencies. Creative agencies can’t just blast their ads and hope for the best anymore, but performance marketers often operate in first-party data like email lists, SMS numbers and trackable affiliate links.
The Bottom Line
Don’t get me wrong — creativity is still vital in marketing. But in the digital age, it’s not enough to just come up with a great idea. You need to know how to execute that idea effectively, measure its impact and adjust your strategy based on real-time feedback.
That’s why performance marketing agencies seem to be pulling ahead. They’re not just dreamers — they’re doers focused on results while traditional marketing focuses on creative and brand awareness. And in today’s fast-paced digital world, that can make all the difference.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for sticky creative and out-of-the-box campaigns; virality and catching the wave of the cultural conversation will always have a role in marketing. It’s more of an emphasis on whether that piece of creative, plus the work and investment, produces measurable business results for the brand.
This shift is not just a fad. It’s the future of marketing. If your brand is still stuck in the old ways, it may be time to rethink your strategy.
In many ways, performance marketing has launched a shift in the industry that has embedded itself in the tools, tactics and strategies that marketers on either side of the spectrum use daily. At this point, it’s just a matter of how they leverage all of the data that’s available to them.