Punk vs Legacy – the rise of the new agency generation

2020 has seen a notable rise in the fortunes of a new generation of independent advertising agencies around the world. Having watched 20 different agency groups and independents presenting their credentials at the November AdForum online conference, some clear trends are apparent in different operating models and principles of the established networks and their new rivals.

To illustrate what this means and how it affects advertisers, let’s take the analogy of ‘Punk vs Legacy’ – the revolution in rock music in the 1970s

What are the ‘punk’ agencies reacting against?

In the mid-1970s, rock music was starting to take itself very seriously indeed. What had started out as a pretty straightforward musical genre had become very big business indeed. Four blokes and their instruments touring the country in a van had grown into a road team of hundreds, travelling with four juggernauts full of kit while the band themselves were transported by jet plane with individual limos from the airport to the concert venue.

The music at the shows had expanded too – now we’d find band members vying with each other to play the longest solos, jam indefinitely and demonstrate technical proficiency.

The creation and production of the music had changed out of all recognition. Once upon a time, bands would write ten songs in the back of the van, rehearse them for a day or two at the local concert hall then book the studio for a couple of days and get the performances down on tape before getting back on the road.

Now, they would lock themselves into the studio for months at a time to write and produce the recorded versions of their music. Songs became bloated and very complex. Was there a competition to see who could put the most time signatures into one song? It sometimes seemed so.

Frankly, it was becoming difficult to listen to and self-indulgent. Was this generation of rock groups forgetting about the customer and the audience?

So let’s roll an analogy into the world of advertising agencies and look for some learnings. We’ll work on the principle that the new generation of highly rated and capable independent agencies are the Punks and that the big six networks are the advertising equivalent of the Legacy music business that the punks took on.

So, what do we see the Legacy networks wanting to tell us about in their credentials pitches? They love to tell us how they are able to cope with complexity. Complex processes to get the advertising ideas perfectly tuned to the audience, who are in turn analysed to the nth degree through a huge investment in data and intelligence.

Once the brief has been through an intensive sign-off process, the creative teams get to work on some ideas. A shortlist of concepts then goes through an intensive process of testing ….  you get the idea. Once it’s been finalised, the concept actually reaches the customer through an intensely complex production process (all network agency case histories are presented with an obligatory statement that at least 1000 pieces of content were produced around the theme, through a proprietary IT platform probably using AI to ensure the optimum result).

It’s difficult to do, it can be impressive to hear about, and it’s clearly a rigorous process closely monitored and policed around the network to make sure the brand is presented with total consistency everywhere the work appears. And this expensive linear process is exactly what the new generation of agencies is reacting against. They are united through a back-to-basics approach, similar to the sudden rise of the punk bands in reaction to the excesses of the ‘dinosaur’ rock generation.

What do the punk agencies offer instead?

The punk bands of the 1970s are often portrayed as revolutionaries, rising up to overthrow the rock and pop establishment. With the benefit of a historical viewpoint, it’s easy to see that they were more about “back to basics” – simpler music, with simple structure, little or no technical embellishment on show, and back to four blokes/girls in a van for the tour.

So not so much a revolution as a reaction against the excesses of the bloated bands they were seeking to replace. (And they definitely were seeking to replace the existing hierarchy, there was no shortage of ambition).

It’s similar with the punk agencies. Their credentials presentations are quite different. It’s all about quick decisions, gut feel based on experience rather than endless research, less process, a rapid cut to the creative work, and more focus on the creative idea rather than the wonders of the tech stack for production and content.

It all sounds much simpler, a case of ‘back to the future’. And the rationale behind it is about the speed of reaction to market changes and a focus purely on the customer, not the industry peer group.

Where do the punks come from?

Ironically, almost all of the new breed of agencies are headed up by highly experienced operators who learned their business within the big network agencies. Their story is usually that they got frustrated, saw the opportunity to do things better and bailed out to do their own thing. This, of course, gives clients the reassurance of years of industry experience that they are able to bring to bear, and advertising instincts that are highly tuned and underpinned by successful track records.

However, there are also some genuine left-fielders who have set up successful agency businesses from backgrounds outside the industry. They have learned about the commercial world through other backgrounds, often with a digital element. Maybe their success demonstrates that, just as the punks boasted that they could hardly play their instruments and never had a lesson, you don’t always have to spend years learning how to do advertising. You just need talent.

Is the future punk or legacy?

The trump card that the networks have played over the last few years has been that they can implement campaigns internationally. Whereas creative hot-shops, they would tell you, we’re OK for the occasional single market campaign but had no role in internationally coordinated brand campaigns.

This is increasingly untrue, as more and better options emerge for local translation of ideas and production. So the ‘Punk’ agencies are now able to demonstrate an international implementation capability for their conceptual work using informal alliances and specialist resources in local markets.

Does this mean that the writing is on the wall for the legacy agencies in the big networks? Well, no. Just as history shows that the best punk bands thrived and became in their turn the establishment they once went up against, so history also shows that the advertising networks keep a close eye on their independent rivals and eventually buy the best ones up and absorb them. And while it’s easy to poke fun at the big networks and their management layers and infrastructures, we have to remember that they are still responsible for most of the big brand advertising that is produced in the world.

The interesting thing to watch will be whether the management teams of the most successful independents will have the strength of purpose, or even the need, to change the operating models of the networks to match the agile stance they enjoy as independent businesses.

In the best case, over the next five years, we will get the best of both worlds. But the music business history of the rise of the punks also gives some tough warnings about what happens to the ‘Legacy bands’ who fail to learn the lessons.

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