“In the next two years, an amazing thing is going to happen: Your brand will speak its first words.”   Will Wiseman, chief strategy officer, PHD Worldwide

Wiseman means this quite literally as brands of all sizes race to incorporate increasingly popular smart speaker technologies into their marketing plans.

The most obvious manifestation of this development may be the “voice agency of record,” a phrase first used by JPMorgan Chase to describe VaynerMedia last month. But does the latest ad industry bingo entry mark a new kind of agency-client relationship or another case of shiny object syndrome?

“The question is, do you really need another silo?” asked 360i CEO Sarah Hofstetter. “Maybe you don’t assume, but you certainly expect that every digital agency can do voice.” Many shops have indeed launched voice speciality offerings, even though no clients have chosen to label them voice AOR.

Wiseman said these technologies are particularly relevant to a big spender like Chase that “relies on a lot of interactive servicing,” but far smaller and less obvious brands are getting on board as well. For example, Thunderbird Real Food Bars announced last week that it had hired Austin’s Drumroll as its new voice AOR.

“We see voice’s potential to create significant change in how we all currently get information, interact with technology and brands, shop, etc. So, we want to dive in and explore early and gain expertise in the platform as it grows and consumer behaviour changes,” said Thunderbird CEO Mike Elhaj. He declined to elaborate on future voice-based projects but said he expects the brand to “benefit across multiple categories, including brand affinity, sales, reach and more.”

While consensus holds that the importance of such technologies will only continue to grow, some industry veterans voice scepticism regarding these sorts of announcements.

“It’s a PR play to make [Chase] look progressive, frankly,” said an agency executive speaking to Adweek on background who described the bank’s announcement as “ridiculous bullshit.”

Wiseman commented: “A lot of what you do and what you put in the trade press is a signal of who you are and what you want to become.” In other words, brands like Chase and Thunderbird are using traditional, arguably outdated industry terms to publicise their own investments in voice.

“To me, there are no three letters that have been more tainted over the past five years than AOR,” added Rain executive creative director Will Hall, who praised marketers’ emphasis on voice work but fears a perpetuation of a “fragmented agency model” by using traditional language to describe an entirely new sort of relationship.

“We who are humbly, but factually, one of the leaders in voice would never use those words unless a client said, ‘We want to call you that,’ in which case we would play nice,” he said, citing Rain’s success in pushing Tide to the top of Alexa voice search results regarding stain removal.

“There’s an incredible priority in being first [in voice search results], and as an agency, your ability to assist the brand becomes all the more important,” Wiseman said. He noted that, while Google may show the top 10 results of a given query on one page, voice search results are more limited and therefore more valuable as brands and their agency partners aim to “monetise the path from search to purchase.”

Both Hall and Wiseman agree that this trend will lead holding groups to begin acquiring related speciality shops and integrating them, just as WPP did last year with Amazon-only consultancy Marketplace Ignition.

Drumroll CEO and co-founder Kirk Drummond said they “expect [voice] to be an area of speciality over the coming years before likely becoming part of the larger digital marketing set of responsibilities as the clients’ and industry’s baseline knowledge grows, much like mobile marketing was a speciality in the early days of smart phones but has now become standard knowledge and practice.”

There’s no question that this sort of specialisation, however you want to describe it, has become increasingly valuable for agencies and clients alike.

So why aren’t the ‘big six’ holding companies talking up their own voice capabilities? “We’re opting for doing and not talking,” Wiseman said. “We already have huge applications of search and ecommerce for our clients, and for us, this is really the next generation of that activity.”


This article was authored by Patrick Coffee and written for Adweek