Specialist skills, a willingness to collaborate and a proven ability to innovate during the pandemic are all reasons why indie shops say they are in a strong position to address clients’ changing needs over the coming years.
Agility through adversity
“This is our moment,” Vitor Barros, chief executive of Propeg, the leading Brazilian independent full-service agency, said, speaking about the state of the independent agency sector around the world today.
Barros has seen first-hand how the Latin American market has grown strongly in the last decade and he understands the importance of serving clients locally, nationally and globally – because Propeg has six offices across Brazil and is also a member of WPI, a global network of more than 70 independent agencies in over 40 countries.
After two years of learning to work remotely and innovating by introducing new technologies, he says independent agencies are leading the way in putting new, agile strategies into practice to support their clients.
The rise of the specialist agency
Barros said that this year collaboration is the driving force in moving agencies and companies forward. Being able to tap into the right network of specialists, rather than trying to recruit all of that talent to work under one roof for a single agency, is key to ensuring independent agencies are providing true value for their clients.
Jane Asscher, chief executive of 23red, a purpose-led creative agency in London, said: “Having confidence in being a specialist is a brilliant way for us to shine as an independent agency. To be non-apologetic about working and collaborating with partners is critical in how independent agency networks work. During the pandemic we showed how nimble and agile we are and how effective we are in competing against network agencies.”
The competitive advantages of independence
Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive of R&R Partners, a Las Vegas-based brand innovation agency, which helped to host the WPI conference, said that the ability to embrace independence by being unconventional and the ability to leverage other agency’s assets through collaboration helps indies and their clients.
Stephen Brown, chief executive of Fuse Create in Toronto, added: “The days of proving our value [as independent agencies] are over. With the pressures of the pandemic, clients have seen that we have risen to the occasion without any organisational restructuring.”
Independents tend to lack the size and scale of traditional holding companies – which some clients may perceive as a drawback. But that’s where the power of WPI’s international network comes into play because an agency can tap into talent, expertise and capabilities from other members around the world, the agency chiefs explained.
Creating future-proof brands
Independent agencies have other advantages because their founders and owners are often very close to their business operationally and can make conscious decisions about what’s best for clients, consumers and their own staff – ethically as well as commercially.
“By 2030 I’d like to be sitting here telling you that we’ve made a real societal difference,” Asscher said, explaining that clients are increasingly inquisitive about their agency’s social impact. “This is one area where the UK government [a 23red client] is leading the way in their procurement. Every single tender they put out has at least 10% of the scoring criteria against the social impact that the agency makes. That is massively important to us commercially.”
Becoming a net zero agency is a goal of 23red but because of hybrid working trends, that means not only looking at how to transform their office into a greener space but also how to support talent with green initiatives at home. Asscher constantly asks: “How do we tackle these challenges through the lens of our values?”
Attracting, retaining, and supporting talent
Attracting and retaining talent is a major issue for agencies of all sizes and independent shops have not been immune from the churn seen across much of the sector – before and after the pandemic.
With an industry-wide attrition rate of 30%, agencies must do more to formalise training plans and career paths to attract and retain “the next generation of talent”, John Harris, president and chief executive of WPI, said.
Brown said that career opportunities for employees within larger holding company-style groups can sometimes appear more obvious and smaller agencies could improve employee retention by creating more visibility around employee advancement.
Some leaders have moved towards four-day work weeks while others have contemplated offering more remote working on an on-going basis to support their team's mental health, delegates at the WPI conference heard.
Brand stories for clients… and yourself
Kristen Cavallo, chief executive of The Martin Agency, was a guest speaker who urged the assembled agency leaders to treat their own company’s brand just like they would tell any of their clients – by creating stories around their brand.
Cairo Marsh, managing partner of relativ*, a strategic consulting agency in Tokyo, agreed. “Agencies make the worst clients and are terrible at branding themselves due to this idea that we are devaluing ourselves,” he said. “We need to focus on solution content stories instead of case studies to tell the idea of our company and how our relationships create value.”
Brown said Fuse Create has already been going down the route that Cavallo recommends and hired full-time branding and PR talent to handle the agency’s own communications several years ago. “If you looked at your agency like a client’s problem, how would you reprioritise? It’s time to get back your brand-esteem,” he declared.
With independent agencies already in a strong position to continue growing, the message from the WPI conference was clear: Now is a good time to shout about it.
What value do you get out of being a WPI member?
Vitor Barros, CEO of Propeg (São Paulo); largest indie agency in Brazil: “Since joining WPI, I’ve used the tagline – we were local and national, but now we are global. When you are a part of WPI, you see that all independent agencies have similar struggles but their solutions are different. Having access to this knowledge and insight into the types of assets international agencies are using for their campaigns is beyond advantageous.”
Jane Asscher, CEO of 23red (London); specialises in behavioural change; one of their largest clients is the NHS:
“We are a purpose-led agency. Being here at this WPI event has reaffirmed the importance of independence. We would not have secured our place on the UK government roster without WPI. Beyond the international reach aspect, the genuine collaboration is beneficial to us not just in terms of servicing our clients but also the operational insight.”
Cairo Marsh, managing partner, relativ* (Tokyo); Campaign Agency of the Year for Japan for three consecutive years: “Japan is a great market but has worked historically in isolation. Getting new information, new ideas, finding out what's going on internationally is important and WPI gives us that opportunity as well as the ability to scale past our market so we can offer the best solutions to our clients.”
Stephen Brown, CEO of Fuse Create, Toronto; vice chair of WPI board of directors: “Carving out time naturally, to remove yourself from the business to analyse it, is hard. WPI events are a strategic planning outlet for the business of the business. We made two immediate tweaks to our strategy after listening to Kristen Cavallo speak. To find other industry leaders to connect and be vulnerable with is invaluable.”
The Agency 2030: The Future Starts Today conference was held in Las Vegas, Nevada early April 2022 by global marketing leaders Worldwide Partners, Inc. Technology giants Admoni, Basis Technologies and Deltek sponsored the event. Attendees included executives from the top independent agencies from around the world. The event had a focus on shaping opportunities for independent agencies, driving change, responding and looking ahead to the future.