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Dedicated 'voice' agencies are on the rise. But is there enough demand from clients for them to thrive? 

Last week, Voiceworks launched in the UK claiming to be the "world’s first full-service, voice-first consultancy" with a promise to "push the boundaries" to deliver an end-to-end voice strategy for increasingly curious brands. Meanwhile Mindshare launched a consultancy at the end of last year to advise clients on the burgeoning space.

That ad agencies are muscling in on servicing clients in this space is not surprising given the rapid adoption of voice tech. Deloitte says the global smart speaker market will grow by 63% in 2019, reaching an install base of 250m while research firm MarketsandMarkets says the industry will grow from $1.57bn in 2017 to $11.79bn by 2023. Furthermore, VoiceBot data says one in five US adults now have a smart speaker and in the UK adoption was shy of 10 million active users at the start of 2019.

Sophie Hind was until recently the regional strategy director at radio giant Global. However seeing the potential in voice, she recently joined Voiceworks as managing director.  The team of 20 UK staff - who have been lured from top broadcasters and fellow ad agencies alike - will work from conception to execution across voice search, audio content and audio branding. Though it declined to detail its full roster, Hind claimed there is enough demand for the agency to focus wholly on voice.

According to DAX, 85% of marketers are increasing the budgets going into digital audio, including on smart speakers like Amazon's Alexa and Google Home which are currently used by 17% of the UK. 

Recent research from Xaxis and IAB Europe also found that 60% of marketers see an opportunity to increase their programmatic audio spend. At the moment, more than three quarters (79%) invest less than 10% of total ad spend on audio. 41% allocate no budget to programmatic audio at all. Daniel Knapp, chief economist at IAB Europe, said audio’s "high level of consumer engagement", the brand-safe environments and the ease of the programmatic delivery, "creates a highly appealing media channel for brands".

As an advertising platform, Hind said smart speakers deliver the right messages to the right people at the right times on a granular, tailored level. 

"We get more audience information back via smart speakers and podcasts compared to traditional audio reporting (RAJAR). We get exact numbers rather than estimated figures, age, sex, location," she said. "This gives sponsors a greater idea of potential impact and makes every pound count."

Not putting all of its eggs in the one basket, Voiceworks will also produce content, a show called Sport Social will be "the first daily, human voiced football news, covering all Premier League clubs”. It is the first step in its journey to become the "go-to sports provider for voice assistants". 

Voiceworks isn't alone in launching a dedicated outfit to help brand marketers negotiate the trends in the voice space. At the end of 2018, media agency Mindshare launched a voice and visual consultancy attracting the likes of Pandora, General Mills, Campari and Dyson to its mobile consulting, content workshops and voice SEO services.

Jim Cridlin, global head of innovation and partnership at Mindshare, who is leading the unit said voice remains an "emerging opportunity" and first movers are likely to benefit. 

"We are starting to see clients get interested in it because consumers are getting interested in it," he said. There are more than a few marketers out there playing with their Google Homes and Alexas wondering how to develop a Skill but, like the chatbot trend, it's easy to build but hard to maintain and achieve widespread adoption. 

"These are like buying a puppy, once you have it you have to take care of it and feed it and keep it alive over time," he stressed. 

The consultancy conceived a Hellman's recipe skill and a hayfever medicine skill plugged into the local pollen count. But very few skills cut through the masses and developing 'Skills' for brands is not where the biggest opportunities are for agencies; they reside in voice search and voice commerce space.

"There aren't a lot of paid voice search opportunities yet. To win in voice search, you need content that people are asking for optimized for voice. Search engines find it and surface it - it is still good old fashioned SEO," said Cridlin. 

The exec notes that most digital and media agencies are equipped to handle SEO work and this may be their easiest route into voice. "Small changes in this space can generate tremendous results."

He detailed how adding the word 'ice cream' to each of an ice cream clients products on its website helped surface them in voice queries for, you guessed it, ice cream.

On voice commerce, naturally currently dominated by Amazon and Alexa, Mindshare recently won a Gold Cannes Lion for hacking Prime Day 2018.  It gave away a free box of Honey Nut Cheerios to everyone who spent more than $40 on Amazon Prime Day in 2018. The offer "threaded Amazon's recommendation algorithm" and set the shopping history of "millions" in cereal to that brand. Voice searches and orders for cereal through Alexa would default on that precise product due to the promotion.

 
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"We say the first you brand order on Alexa may be the last brand decision you ever make," said Cridlin. "That is most exciting about the voice space. It's not quite the wild west but it's certainly not established yet. There is so much opportunity for brands and agencies to get creative about how you might have the system like we did."

But the public is still learning how to best use voice tech. Many are unaware there are 70,000 Skills on Alexa (which doubled in 2018), and 5,000 official actions on Google.

A January YouGov poll outlined smart speaker behaviour; 85% play music, 63% ask general questions, 60% set alarms, 13% play games, 12% order products and 8% control smart homes. 

Simon Kilby, chief revenue officer at Bauer Media believes there is an increasing demand for a full-service voice agency due to the number of people accessing content through both smart speakers and voice-controlled devices (that are also readily available in the latest cars).

He said: "At Bauer Media we have been at the forefront of working in voice-controlled contexts to ensure our influential brands are easily accessed through audio. We expect to see the growth we’ve experienced in smart speaker listening continue and so see a firm place for brands to activate their sonic branding."

There is a boom in connected devices which is increasing listening and interaction opportunities. But with the expansive new surfaces in which to activate comes brand safety issues, "which voice is not exempt from". 

"Voice-controlled devices do provide new opportunities for trusted audio providers to deliver on this critical need and we welcome agencies to join us in demonstrating how audio can fulfil this, reinventing itself as new technologies emerge. Having your brand on the lips of your audience and within the intimate space of their homes and cars is a rare opportunity that we must behold."

Whether the consumer interest in digital audio translates to paying briefs and effective work remains to be seen. 

But with the likes of Mastercard investing heavily in a sonic brand identity specifically tailored for these devices, it stands to reason that many brands will follow suit and agencies like Mindshare and Voiceworks will benefit.