Marketers in Southeast Asia believe that public relations agencies are the weakest link in their agency supply chain, according to a study by the World Federation of Advertisers, reports Mumbrella Asia.

PR firms featured lowest in a survey in which regional and local marketers in ASEAN were asked to assess the agency disciplines that they use.

Creative agencies performed slightly better than PR agencies in the study of 100 marketers whose brands spend more than US$54 billion a year. Media and marketing research firms performed best with 54% of survey respondents describing these partners as good to excellent.

Marketers say that the talent crunch is the biggest problem their agencies face, with 61% of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement “our agencies cannot hold on to their best people”.

However, the loss of people from agencies has led to the emergence of more startups, with marketers seeing a positive side to churn, particularly in disciplines such as social and content where traditional agencies have been slower to adapt.

The study, which was carried out with help from local advertiser associations in Indonesia (APPINA), Malaysia (MAA), the Philippines (PANA) and Singapore (SAA), found that while marketers feel that they’re in control of disciplines such as design, brand positioning and point of sale, they’re struggling to get their digital transformation strategies right.

Marketers say they want more help with media, creative and digital to better understand consumer behaviour on new platforms and in creating content and experiences that work on multiple digital screens.

A key issue appears to be measurement. While marketers in this region use on average five different tools to measure return on investment, metrics are hampered by the lack of reliable industry data.

58% agreed or strongly agreed that “the lack of robust media audience data is preventing us from investing more” and more than a third (36%) agreed or strongly agreed that it was “impossible to accurately measure ROI in our market/region”.

The study also found that local agencies are favoured above their international counterparts for having a better understanding of local business issues; 51% of respondents agree or strong agreeing with this sentiment. Just 21% disagree or strongly disagree.

Generating consumer insights is another big challenge for marketers in Southeast Asia, with the report’s authors suggesting that the region’s diversity presents brands with a bewildering cultural landscape to navigate.

ASEAN marketers are as a consequence far less confident than their counterparts in Latin America – a region growing at a similar pace – at developing actionable consumer insights.

Of the ASEAN marketers surveyed, 29% said they were fairly advanced at generating actionable consumer insights compared to 45% of their equivalents in Latin America.

Ranji David, the WFA’s Asia marketing director, said that managing digital transformation in such a complex region “challenges even the very best marketers.”

The winners, she said, will be those who “effectively deliver innovation, achieve data understanding and maintain brand relevance with diverse target groups while accessing regionally relevant experiences, insights and case studies.”

The study emerges ahead of Global Marketer Week, which is being held in Kuala Lumpur this week, from 15-18 March.