AMV, Uncommon, ITV, Oliver and TSB grapple with future of agency models

Breakfast Briefing: Leonard, Radcliffe and Beale
Breakfast Briefing: Leonard, Radcliffe and Beale

The ad industry is full of variety when it comes to client/agency models, but how do marketers and creatives decide which one works for them?

"All creative people just want to work at a place where they have confidence to express their creativity. The model that provides those conditions will be the one that wins. It’s that simple."

There was then a cacophony of applause as Alex Grieve delivered his verdict on how agencies should be built for the 21st century. The executive creative director of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO had unlocked a nagging concern that preoccupies creatives when the industry talks about the future of agencies. 

Grieve’s contribution was one of the many highlights of a lively Campaign Breakfast Briefing event in which the diversity of agency structures was on show. 

While opinions differed over which particular model works for them, the need to change (and change quickly) was a common refrain at "Getting creative: Rebooting the ad agency model" in partnership with M&A advisory firm Results International at the Regent Street Cinema.

Wunderman Thompson’s global chief executive, Mel Edwards, had lots to say about the challenges of merging Wunderman and J Walter Thompson to create a 20,000-person agency (as well as her former boss Sir Martin Sorrell’s lack of decorum).

Yet, while Wunderman Thompson is positioning itself to help global clients with end-to-end solutions at scale, Edwards insisted "there is room for everyone", albeit in an environment that is getting ever-more competitive. 

"No one client comes to us and says they want to work with 20,000 people in 90 markets. They come with a challenge and want us to solve it," she said. "The reason why we have brought the agencies together is clients want simplicity."

This desire for simplicity does not equate to a lack of sophistication. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, according to Results International partner Julie Langley.

Langley pointed to how the emergence of Accenture and Deloitte as new buyers of ad agencies signalled the re-emergence of creativity as a "must-have capability", even if that creativity needs to be looked at differently in the digital age.

"The tricky bit for agencies," Langley warned, "is adapting the way they work to suit how advertisers want to work with their agencies and adapt in a way that consumers want to engage with brands." 

This sense that agencies are feeling the squeeze from both ends was apparent, both from marketers and agency heads.

Nils Leonard, who famously eschewed the comfort of Grey to launch Uncommon Creative Studio, purred with delight at the start-up giving him and his co-founders the freedom to work with brands that "see eye to eye" with their mission to build brands that people in the real world "actually wish existed".

While Leonard insisted the lofty business proposition hasn’t been blunted – "clients want energy and ambition to matter in the world!" – he admitted that he underestimated the importance of account handlers (the "suits").

"When you’re doing massively ambitious projects, you need someone at the centre, holding things to the ground," he explained. 

Meanwhile, Leonard’s client at ITV, group marketing director Rufus Radcliffe, was noticeably less committal about his preferred agency model and, if anything, was more "predisposed" for an in-house approach.

So why choose to work with Uncommon, when ITV already has its own shop, ITV Creative?

"It was that moment in time where we’re kicking everything in the air," Radcliffe said, referring to ITV’s brand being re-evaluated as Dame Carolyn McCall came on board as chief executive in January 2018.

"It’s really important that we’re not ideologically driven in terms of what model we want to work with… the only thing I know about the future is that it has to iterate and it has to change; what are the skills I need at this moment in time?"

TSB’s head of marketing transformation, social media and content, Keith Gulliver, was similarly non-ideological, but insisted he had to be because the bank was itself going through a process of transformation. While TSB uses Joint (creative) and MRM McCann (CRM), it also uses in-house specialist Oliver as a "strategic partner" within a broader agency ecosystem. 

"I don’t just take people from Oliver and drop them into our bank and let them fend for themselves," Gulliver explained. "Our team’s approach is a partnership – the team is split between half TSB people and half Oliver resource – and that’s a really important distinction… It would be very difficult for that type of talent and creative capability just to be dropped into a bank and left to survive. It needs some love and investment."

Gulliver was joined on stage by Oliver’s founder and chairman, Simon Martin, who exuded pride and discomfort in equal measure that Sorrell has hijacked his company's mantra of offering "better, faster, cheaper" services.

An audience member challenged Martin on how in-house creative teams can "maintain the friction of terrifying ideas" when working so closely with their brand paymasters. Martin pointed to the recent hire of Rodrigo Sobral as global chief creative officer and the fact that Oliver has, he claimed, lost fewer than 10 clients in its 15-year history.

"We’re a lean business and focused on doing great work. We like to balance intimacy with keeping talent fresh and circulating it around," he said. "We don’t claim to be the finished article, but we offer a fantastic opportunity for being inside brands and genuinely understand what they’re trying to achieve."

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