This post is by Jeremy Taylor, Business Director at TrinityP3 UK and Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd, the UK’s leading community engagement experts.
There are many potential answers to this question, which was a popular one among the 50 consultants who gathered in London for the AdForum Consultant Summit at the end of September 2019. You can read the answer at the end of this article…
Jeremy Taylor and Darren Woolley from TrinityP3 joined this elite gathering of Consultants from the UK and Europe for an intensive three days of presentations by London’s top advertising agency groups. Coach trips from the East London hotel base took the consultants to each of the agency offices and the Summit painted a vibrant picture of the state of the industry and the key issues it faces.
What became clear is that that there is no universally endorsed way of tackling these issues. Each agency group has its own take on the best solutions and it will be fascinating to see how the different approaches succeed over the coming year.
THE big issues faced by the agency world
The complexity of the marketing communications world is increasing almost daily, and coping with this is a dominant driving force in recent agency evolution. Three universal themes emerged from the Summit as agency management teams strive to stay on top of client demands (and client demands are clearly intense).
Firstly, the drive to re-connect media and creativity. The two disciplines have been separated so long now that they operate in different spheres. But new media channels demand that they work more closely together.
Secondly, the rise and rise of data and technology in marketing communications. These tools are unavoidable in the digital age, and used in tandem they can take on much of the implementation aspects of communications campaigns with minimal human input. But this raises questions of how to retain and utilise the spark of creativity that the advertising industry continues to regard as being at the heart of all it does.
Thirdly, the apparently unstoppable requirement to incorporate brand and company purpose at the heart of marketing campaigns. It’s what modern consumers demand, but how do you convincingly integrate it into advertising without opening the brand up to charges of tokenism or post-rationalisation? The AdForum Summit showed some innovative responses to this challenge, all the way from largely ignoring it to insisting that both agency and client must put Purpose at the heart of everything they do.
Many of the agency group presentations are worthy of a complete article in their own right. But without wishing to play down the amount of effort and time that was spent on the presentations, here is are some snap-shots of what was presented to the Summit.
M&C Saatchi kicked off with the first public announcement of their new positioning “Home to the Creative Entrepreneur”. The agency is committed to demonstrating this ethos in their work with clients, and they presented seven examples of collaborative companies within the group, all run and jointly owned by their founders with investment and backing from the parent company. Between them they revealed an innovative approach to tackling all three of the issues highlighted above, combining practical solutions with the passion of the founding management team closely involved in each case.
Oliver presented a very different approach to tackling complex client requirements with their unique approach to in-housing dedicated agency resources. Their challenge is to demonstrate that having an in-house agency doesn’t mean that creativity suffers, and clients can enjoy the best of both worlds. This is evidently working well – their growing success is based on a combination of people, process and technology. The second two are heavily invested and well covered, so the people issue needs to be tackled by offering staff career progression around the many in-house operations.
S4 Capital/Media Monks. It’s impossible to separate this organisation from the personality and aura of its founder Sir Martin Sorrell. And Sir Martin is totally invested in the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Content, Media and Data. In the S4 Capital world, media means digital only and data is what drives content. This approach demands deep collaboration with the world digital giants, and this is where the company is focused as it drives the agenda forward. Interestingly, the company sees the role of creativity in this mix as “changing the way we do things”. The marketing world will watch the impact of this innovative model with huge interest.
Accenture Interactive/Karmarama/Droga5 produce their campaigns on the theme of “Sustainable growth for clients, driven by creating the best experiences”. Brand purpose looms large in this mix to help create the experiences, with data and creative arriving from the different companies making up the group. Another theme emerges here with a unified P&L line to avoid multiple companies fighting over the budget, something we heard from many of the agency groups over the course of the summit.
Away from the established group players, up stepped a new challenger with Rankin. Nothing if not ambitious, Rankin is setting out its stall to “Change the world”. In the process, their clients will also change their world – the agency believes that unless they do, the world will change them instead. In this struggle to stay relevant, Rankin’s fashion-business led creative approach is producing some very impactful work. And with a distinctive collaborative creative and production approach, their ambition is to be highly agile and cost-effective – two more watchwords of the summit that this new “boutique with a broad footprint” looks well placed to fulfil.
Last but not least on day 1 came the Aegis Group, with Merkle and Mc Garry Bowen. Here are two organsations with distinct roles in each client relationship. Merkle provides the data and technology input, with McGarry Bowen in the creative hot-seat. The group has a clear commitment to data as the portal to customisation of content, which in turn provides the basis of “people based marketing”. There is a big investment in technology in their approach, with integration of the technology the key to better performance.
The & Partnership opened up the day and aired their highly sought-after approach to building tailor-made, full-service agencies for clients, both on-site and off-site, to service their global client base. It is clear that this can only work with a major commitment to data and technology to handle the complexities of multi-national communication campaigns. But can The & Partnership also cover the creative challenge – producing high-impact creative work form on-site agency businesses? Some case histories and client testimonials told us that it can be done, at least some of the time.
BBDO gave the Summit Consultants a tour of the agency with presentations on each of the pillars that underpin client relationships. Brand activism is present and correct, although BBDO are keen to stress that not every brand is appropriate for it. It seems that plenty are though, and once the cause is identified strong work can be developed around it. Impactful creative ideas are turned into multi-channel powerhouse campaigns through our old friends data and technology, again with a human touch to provide end-to-end solutions.
(Space in this article does not allow for the presentations by some newer (and not so new) independent players on the London agency scene, but there is certainly no lack of new talent to keep the established groups on their toes. Many thanks to Pablo, Electric Glue, Joint, Uncommon, Wonderhood Studios and Quiet Storm – maybe we can cover them separately)
And so to WPP at the UK Campus at Sea Containers House. Not-so-new CEO Mark Read gave the Summit an overview on progress with the delivery of the new “Creative Transformation Company” that WPP is transforming itself into. With its many well-known brands, the holding company WPP seems to be assuming greater prominence in the group with a unifying mission to deliver “Creativity Powered by Technology”. So there are the familiar themes up front and central.
WPP has a formidable commitment to making technology work for their clients, and even gave a live demonstration of programmatic advertising that had a few heads shaking in the audience at the power of data to deliver personalised messages. WPP certainly has the resources to tackle the three issues and innovative approaches to all of them. The job here seems to be to maintain faith in its ability to deliver from all the stakeholders that it depends on.
Day 3 started with some confident stuff from the self-proclaimed “Challenger Network” VCCP. The company is set up to challenge not just the established networks, but also three big issues that they identify for their clients; Pessimism, Complexity and Rigidity. Pessimism in the world in general can be tackled by brands who adopt inspiring causes in their campaigns; and strong processes and an adaptable approach to structure help with the other two. VCCP see themselves in the middle ground between the “boutique” networks and the established complex players. If they are right, they look well placed to thrive there.
MullenLowe gave the Summit some light relief with a quiz that also served to reinforce its long creative heritage. To complement this, the agency group is investing in in-house specialist centres of excellence to tackle media integration, brand purpose specialism, content production and other complex requirements of producing strong creative work around the world. MullenLowe is another network committed to seamless client delivery through a single bottom-line financial structure, another response to the big industry issues.
And finally – Anomaly. Here is a new network taking on its peers with a promise to be the “Change Agent” for the communications industry. Amongst the commitments to creativity, technology and data that are now the prerequisites to trading for any agency, it was interesting to see Anomaly developing new ventures with clients in which they retained a share of the action. They are also up-front with a willingness to work with payment by results, demonstrating their infectious confidence in the ability of their work to deliver.
Tackling the Issues
So it seems that there are almost as many ways to tackle those three issues as there are agency groups in London. Media strategy and buying can be integrated into creative, or even subsumed completely by digital in the belief that analogue media is a dinosaur with no future.
The future of campaign delivery is clearly tied up in a technology solution, and data is increasingly the driver of personalised messages at every customer touch-point – and everyone believes that this is only going to continue to grow as a trend. Brand Purpose is reaching into every corner of the industry to deliver creative ideas and innovative touch-points and experiences for customers.
But two things are clearly not open for change; the industry-wide commitment to creativity (even if the meaning of the word is slowly being adapted to the new and complex communications world); and the continuing belief in the need for talented people to come into the business to deliver it all.
The three days of the Summit raised some big questions that are not yet answerable. There are many challenges, hinted at but mostly unspoken at the forum, to the continuing success of the industry as it continues to evolve and develop and tackle its challenges. Who will lead and who will be led? Is there one winning strategy to tackling the major issues, or do the different approaches all have merit and so are able to act as differentiators for the clients who work with these groups?
POST SCRIPT – so what do you call a gathering of pitch consultants?
An Acclamation. On the whole, they are not so hard-hearted as they like to make out and there was a lot of appreciation shown for the hard work put in by the 19 agencies who presented their wares. Behind the applause, what did they all really think? Next year’s pitch lists will reveal all.
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