How can agencies rediscover their swagger?
Various Campaign editors and industry chiefs have in recent weeks called for the return of ‘swagger’ to our industry, as we mull over the industry’s talent crisis and the threats attacking creativity from all angles (no time to make amazing work – check, the distraction of quick-fix, cheap content over long-term, quality brand-building – check, clients ramping up their in-house offerings - check). If we could somehow time-travel Don Draper into our industry right now, he’d almost certainly pack up his suitcase, grab his fedora and run as fast as he could for the Californian hills.
So what are we doing wrong? Should we have been listening more closely to Ian Priest and his adaptability mantra? Who is next? Is the agency model fundamentally flawed?
Whilst there is nothing wrong with some self-reflection, and we can always be better, this sort of self-flagellation can become dangerous. It’s time to move on, to raise our gaze to the horizon, and remember what we agencies do well. We need to get our mojo back.
I recently attended a training course for CEOs held by an established industry body, and the conversations I was privy to shocked me. The descriptions some of the 15 other agency leaders gave of the role of creative agencies were just soul destroying. Plagued by such negative self-image it’s no wonder some of our industry’s output is so mediocre. There is, and always has been, a vital role for creative agencies to play in making brands magical and magnetic to the modern day consumer. We need to remember that simple fact, and stop talking ourselves down.
For some of the critics the issue is agencies persuading clients to spend on big bang, big buck ads – the ones they make money on that don’t necessarily bring about business change. Critics look at this, and confidently announce that the traditional creative agency doesn’t provide shareholder value.
Nonsense. During my time at VCCP I saw tangible shareholder value added to the O2 account – the agency created the brand from the ground up after all. If that isn’t testament to adding shareholder value to a brand I don’t know what is. Look at the shareholder value BBH has added to brands like Audi and Lynx, to name but a few. I could spend a very long time telling you about the shareholder value we’re adding for our clients at Forever Beta.
But this isn’t about us. It’s about an industry that’s spent so long bemoaning its own perceived shortcomings that it’s forgotten what made it great in the first place. We need to stop worrying about channel proliferation or programmatic and look back to the bravery of iconic campaigns like Orange, Apple, Persil, Guinness and so on, and find ways to take that mindset into the modern world.
What does that mean? That means being open to new ways of working and adaptable in our ways of operating. It means inspiring our teams into the fast, strategic and creative sprint demanded by today’s briefs. It means getting closer to our CMO’s challenges so we can ask the awkward questions and suggest the unexpected – in short share their mission to relentlessly improve their business. It means being prepared to rip up every process we’ve ever relied on and start again. Every time.
As an industry we can’t sit around fretting about the way the world is changing. We have to respond. We need to elevate our perspective. In a world of disrupters like Deliveroo, AirBnB, Homestay, Hello Fresh, JustEast, Grubhub and Uber, it’s our job to help our clients become the next category disrupters.
The next decade will belong to the agencies that take their clients on a journey beyond their comfort zone, beyond the tried and tested formulas, to new territory that will deliver the extraordinary. It’s only by pushing the boundaries in this way – by being allowed the permission to experiment and fail - that we can become the people who clients rely on to help them solve their most complex challenges. If it’s not making the money men nervous it’s not bold enough.
Tell the accountant in your head – the one who’s whispering that there’s no budget allocated for these beyond-the-brief ideas – to pipe down. He’s wrong. In my experience, if you take your client on that journey, towards the unexpected idea that could deliver not just the marginal quarterly increments they’ve asked for but a category disrupting, tenfold business transformation, they’ll always find money for it. If they are brave enough.
The agency model is not fatally flawed. It just needs reinventing. The old agency structure is too rigid and too focused on chasing the dollars and retainers. It’s time to take it off the rails, accepting that 100% is counter-productive. Aim for 70% billable and spend the other 30% delivering the unexpected, the bold, the magical. Be responsive and adaptable and allow your people the freedom and trust they are waiting for. Only then will we start to see the return of some much-needed swagger.
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