Driving change at global indie agencies

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This article first appeared on Marklives.

A turn away from the concept of integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades — to niche, Uber-like agencies; the importance of diversity; and why clients hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake are just some of the topics covered at the 2016 Indie Summit (The Independent Agencies Global Leadership Summit) which I attended last month in London.

A conference and networking event for senior management of independent marketing and communications agencies from around the world, we spent two days exploring a number of opportunities and challenges facing our industry. In no particular order, here are some of the things that I found valuable, reassuring, notable or just plain interesting:

1. As much as agencies change, they stay the same

Several things struck me about how agencies globally are looking these days.

The first was that there seems to be a turn away from the concept of huge, big integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades but masters of none, if you like. To be fair, I am sure if it had been a summit of big networked agencies, this would be different but, certainly among the independents, there was a return to focusing upon niche and specialised expertise.

This was echoed by the clients that were there; a common theme from them was that, despite boundaries between agencies’ work streams and offerings becoming blurred, they were all looking for agencies that had specialised and in-depth knowledge of certain areas, rather than a one-size-fits-all offering.

Another theme was that of increasingly flat structures, and a move away from fixed hierarchies. Over and again, we heard about how agencies are moving to empower (often younger) employees, understanding that allowing them to make decisions, play a valuable role in the organisation and essentially be mini-entrepreneurs in a business ends up benefiting everyone.

Lastly, we heard a lot about diversity. One client spoke about how he would never award business to an agency if he didn’t see a diversity in age, sex, race and background — for how could they ever be able to have an insight and understanding into various clients needs if it were a pitch team of cookie-cutter white males?

Ironically, then, was the makeup of the attendees of the conference: in the 200 or so attendees from agencies around the globe, I would say a conservative estimate was that 70%+ of them were white men…

Looks like it is the world over — not just South Africa — that needs to make some serious changes in this respect.

2. All clients want the same things

It seems clients everywhere want the same things, and the same themes keep coming up when they spoke about what they love and hate about working with agencies.

Delegates kept mentioning the value that good agencies bring: an inspirational culture, optimism, powerful ideas, a wealth of knowledge and bravery. The ability to look at a complexity of client needs and turn it into a simple solution; and the ability to look at a problem from the outside and introduce a new way of looking at things.

Collaboration kept on coming up, and how they were looking for tight relationships where the boundaries between client and agency were indivisible. And, again, diversity, diversity, diversity.

But it’s not all roses; again, the same themes kept coming up when they were asked about what they found challenging about working with agencies. They hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake; agencies spend too much time talking about how great they are, without listening to what the client is saying or needing. Their feelings towards awards are ambivalent, too; although they are a nice to have, they don’t feel that it makes a difference in appointing an agency (in Germany, there is apparently even an industry award for “credential presentations”!).

But the biggest bugbear was the lack of transparency; this was mentioned over and over again — in costs (especially media buying); how the agency delivers on a brief (pretending they have the skills when they need to outsource); and in relationships (such as sucking up to the client in order to win brownie points).

The main takeout I had — and it’s nothing new, let’s be honest — is that a client chooses to work with an agency because of chemistry, much like one would choose a lover. All of them cited the need for diversity in talent, the need for listening, flexibility, and a strength in insights and the ability to transform them into powerful ideas.

3. The trends that are driving us forward

There’s a whole lot happening out there that it helps to be aware of. Here are a few I found interesting:

The growth of Uber-like agencies — where client can draw upon talent in an ad hoc way.

Global agencies are starting to work more like management consultancies that happen to have a specialisation in the field of communications, rather than agencies that work as suppliers.

One of the biggest consumer trends the world over at the moment is the trend of “Me”. This stems from the pressure to fulfil potential, a pressure to be authentic, and the pressure to be “me” (as opposed to one of a “tribe’). This means a couple of things for brands: it means that people are no longer defined by broad groupings of religion or nationality, for example, but rather by micro-definitions, such as what they eat. It also means that they expect more from brands; they want to be acknowledged and followed back from brands on social media, and they like to be rated by brands (such as Uber does).

The “next big thing” (or things) in technology will not be about a development in technology. Those ideas that work are those that start with basic human need and wants, and use technology to benefit lives, and make them cheaper, easier and/or quicker. Consumers don’t know what they want until they are told, but we are able to see what is happening elsewhere and use that technology to innovate.

Facebook is planning on taking over the world. Seriously. And those who think it is ‘just’ a social-media platform are foolish. There are massive plans to be in every part of our lives, based upon being immediate (becoming a messaging app that is part of every conversation — even one-on-ones with retailers and brands); expressive (expect to see much more emojis in the future; it understands how our brains process images thousands of time faster than words); and immersive (along with introducing 360 video, live streaming and virtual reality, its drones plan to bring wifi to, literally, the whole world). Facebook’s advice to brands for the future? Reach people where they are (on mobile and through apps); embrace messaging platforms as a new way for brands to communicate in a one-on-one formats; experiment with expressive storytelling formats (such as Boomerang): and begin to use more immersive formats (such as 360 videos).

4. A few other interesting things and resources I found useful:

  • The Browser (and the Daily Browser emailer): some of the best writing on the internet handpicked and delivered each day in one place.
  • The Future Foundation: global consumer trends, with a free newsletter sharing global trends and insights.
  • TrendWatching: another monthly free newsletter collating global consumer trends.
  • The Staffing and Entertainment Collective: staffing for events and activations in multiple global locations.
  • Interesting read: “Negotiating to win” written by Gary Noesner, the former head of the FBI Hostage Negotiation Unit.

Overall, there were two things that kept on coming through, over and over again.

The first was to listen: listen to clients, make decisions in a calm environment, and create an atmosphere in which input is encouraged.
Positivity: talk positively; treat people positively; and make stuff happen in a positive way.
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PS It’s not just in South Africa that politics are giving business leaders the heebie-jeebies. The world over, there is a demand for a new kind of doing and a new kind of thinking. The danger is that this seems to be leading to the thinking of the past. A frustration with the status quo is resulting in revolt and a general rejection of rationality, and of emotion rejecting facts. Coming from SA, it’s all very easy to get embroiled in the chaos of our own politics — but it’s simultaneously comforting and horrifying to be reminded that agencies and businesses everywhere over are looking with trepidation at how the rise of populist politics will affect them, too. How this rolls out will be interesting, and probably unsettling — even in advance of the Brexit referendum result, agencies at the conference were reporting of deals, network acquisitions and mergers, and client projects being put on hold or cancelled because of uncertainty of what will happen next politically and economically.