Adland is seeing new leadership, new purpose and new money

Iain Jacob
Iain Jacob

We are witnessing a fundamental change in the industry that has both structural and cultural roots

Croud is the latest in a growing list of innovative marketing businesses attracting serious investment. They are in good company, along with Oliver, Jellyfish, MSQ Partners, Brainlabs, to name a recent few.

Campaign's Gideon Spanier recently referred to this development as the "outliers" coming of age. He is right and significantly the UK (not just London) is a global leader.

Advisory group GP Bullhound identifies the UK as the second-biggest country for marketing service business investments – twice the size of Germany and only beaten by the US. 

What is going on? Are we just seeing private equity and private group money chase returns as some of the holding companies wobble and consultancies pause for breath?

We are witnessing a far more fundamental change that has both structural and cultural roots. This combination makes for a powerful force indeed.

Structurally, there is a race to acquire and grow the new capabilities now required to succeed – influencer, performance media, data science, digital video content, augmented reality and so forth – as well as the deployment of new organisation approaches that use technology and gig market approaches to drive change at scale.

Many of these companies were started five to seven years ago; they were born out of the need to develop new skills to address the then-emergent digital areas of marketing that have since scaled. They are not reacting to change as incumbents; they are driving it and growing the UK as a global hub of expertise as a result.

But the second force is even more powerful. Talk to these entrepreneurs and their teams and you quickly find a common thread, whatever their area of expertise. 

They are purpose-led builders and creators.

While the role of purpose in brand marketing can be debated, the importance of organisation purpose to talent is unarguable.

People want to work for companies that they believe in, that are changing things for the better, that are fair and enable personal creative expression.

It seems so obvious, something that could be dismissed as an asset of the small company – a luxury, if you will.

It is far from this. We are seeing the next wave of entrepreneurialism and, this time, it is driven by talent and creativity, not the listing-multiple mathematics of the public markets.

And the smart money is following them. They are scaling fast and there is a much longer list than just those that have recently made the headlines.

But why now?

For years, the holding companies were the masters and mistresses of the marketing services universe, the places to foster your career.

But then, what drove their very success – objectivity, human understanding and creative expression – appeared to be diluted by attempting to become a version of the platform businesses and tech vendors that were attacking them.

The previously unquestioned "truth" of everything being OK just as long as you won big client assignments seemed to fail.

Indeed, often such wins became a case of winning the battle and losing the war, as a result of brutal terms and the tiring cost on people, their health and motivation. Then investors smartened up and wanted to see organic growth as proof of efficacy.

Then the new masters and mistresses, the tech platforms, sucked in so much of the great talent. They were surely changing the world for the better as they created communities and democratised access to knowledge.

But now they appear to spend more on lawyers defending themselves from accusations of inappropriate data usage and market manipulation than most companies invest in talent development programmes. What were cool companies are in danger of becoming seen as toxic by next-generation talent.

The truly existential threat to these businesses is not the commercial model or legislation; it is their ability to attract the best talent that really can change the way things are done.

So, time is up and a lot of talent appears to be calling it by creating a "third way": not reliant on incumbent barriers to entry, nor just run by machines and biased algorithms, but the new human enterprise. Powerful human creativity enabled by the new tools of the trade. 

Of course, the financial wherewithal is still critical and this is where the development of the venture capital and private-equity groups, and their ability to understand this world, are paying dividends to our industry.

PE and VC businesses have smartened up; they know how to look beyond the usual multiple-chasing narrative of software-as-a-service, tech and data – clichés found in every investor paper. They look for real talent and, indeed, invest in the modern agency model that the holding companies appear to be abandoning.

Driven by a powerful and modern purpose with longer-term shareholders, the talent (typically shareholding staff) sees a personal growth opportunity, as well as benefitting from their endeavours and not simply financing an incumbent leadership executive club.

These are indeed powerful forces for change and innovation.

Serendipitously, clients have come to realise that while pressurising an incumbent "supplier" is good for cost control, without a vibrant creative ecosystem their own ability to compete is damaged.

As trust and belief in their original suppliers is diminished, they are actively seeking help to build the new ecosystem. You would be amazed by how often the likes of Coca-Cola, Unilever, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble appear on the client list of these younger businesses. 

This vibrancy ultimately benefits us all, whether we are working in a holding company, platform business, consultancy or private enterprise.

It is this vibrancy that keeps our talent pool healthy in what remains one of the most exciting industries to work in. Fears that marketing is on its deathbed as brand owners submit to last-click optimisation economics and abandon brand-building are really just part of the up-and-down cycle of any industry. 

Talent always finds the better way – from designing new tech to creating culture-shifting ideas that build brands – and this is what we are witnessing today with the blossoming of new business models, new start-ups and a new diversity of thought.

Here is to the third way – the human way.

Iain Jacob is chair of UKOM and Cinema First

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