The network's not dead. It's more alive than ever

Being big isn't better, but it's just as good as being independent. Let's debunk some myths about networks.

There’s a long-standing school of thought that refuses to go away in adland that believes "big is bad and independent is good". You could easily exchange the word "good" for "cool", "edgy", "entrepreneurial", "creative"…

This is founded on a misconstrued belief that creativity is inherently linked to originality and that originality equates to fresh, new and quirky. And this can only be delivered by small independents that are famed for having greater flex than their bigger competitors.

With so much structural change in our industry, I challenge this enduring belief that larger organisations are enslaved by bureaucratic systems and cumbersome process. It’s time to debunk the myths and unpack a new rhetoric that networks can be everything the independent is (and sometimes much more).

Myth #1: The best talent favours the independent

Everyone knows the secret sauce to any organisation’s success – big or small – is its talent. There’s a value to spending time at an independent, when you find yourself wearing many different hats – it’s part and parcel of the gig and I can’t knock it.

But with a network, you are afforded a different set of opportunities, including in the range of clients and marketing challenges. Given the scope of people involved, you get to experience a multitude of cultures and cross-disciplines and geographies. These opportunities often mean networks get a broader choice of talent coming through the doors, translating to more diverse and powerful work. And from my personal experience at McCann Worldgroup, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and kicking.

We wear many hats, take on many roles, because we love what we do and are single-mindedly focused on doing the best job we can. This is not exclusive to the boutiques. It’s just that, as a global network, we have greater access to a robust ecosystem when we need more support.

Myth #2: Bigger means more problems

There isn’t an intrinsic problem with big organisations. Problems develop when things become static. There’s no denying that issues can be greatly exaggerated on a larger scale. However, if you’re big but flexible, and genuinely collaborative, you have the means to evolve and the ability to lean into problems effectively. We can manoeuvre out of areas of attrition with little collateral damage, making us well-positioned to thrive in a dynamic and agile environment.

In an age of uncertainty (Brexit, anyone?), a large organisation can feel a greater confidence in survival, having access to a number of levers, whether attracting talent from elsewhere, moving talent across borders or increasing workflow to and from different markets. In other words, bigger can also mean more options to solve problems at a greater speed.

Myth #3: Networks are more expensive

A tall tale. The fact is that a network’s scale puts us in a favourable position. Due to our size and dimension, resource can be moved around to ensure we rarely carry costs that aren’t being utilised. As a result, we are likely to be more cost-effective, whereas a smaller independent might have to share overheads with a client or, indeed, take the hit itself. We continually invest in talent, capabilities and innovations in multiple locations and, for many clients, creating enduring value – ultimately benefitting each individual office as well. Don’t confuse expansive with expensive.

Myth #4: If you want culture, forget a network

Says who? There’s this antithetical idea that the network is homogenous in its make-up. Culture has become a catchphrase synonymous with independents and start-ups alike. However, within smaller companies, there’s a greater risk of cultures becoming indistinguishable – of like-minded people all working in an environment that could threaten wider diversity. We are large – yes. But we are also flexible, agnostic and proud to have an inclusive culture that champions diversity as a business mandate for creativity. "Creativity is the only way to survive" is our fiercely held mantra – and this is driven by our heterogeneous culture. It simply doesn’t work without it.

Major offices within a network must also ensure that they have a healthy mix of domestic and regional clients run out of that agency. They can’t be fed from the centre but they must stand on their own two feet – another contributing factor to a more diverse culture. With an essential connection to both domestic, regional and international perspectives, our network and individual office cultures are not static but are always evolving. They have to.

Myth #5: Networks don’t take home the metal

Last year at Cannes, we saw a number of networks, including our own, take home a hefty share of Grand Prix awards. The best networks out there know how to leverage their access to reams of knowledge, to wider information, to cultural differences and nuances. The ability to share all this information internationally means we can help brands play meaningful roles in people’s lives – all by understanding consumers and what motivates them. This cultural intelligence combined with our networks’ ability to scale and scale quickly can’t be matched – particularly for international clients looking to access both local and global markets and insights. A network has proven that it can be the birthplace of some of the best creative work out there.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not flipping the argument of small versus big on its head and saying all behemoth networks are the beacons of creativity. I’m not saying go big or go home. But if a network understands it is the sum of its moving parts, if it is done correctly and uses its strengths wisely, then it is a force to be reckoned with – as agile, creatively brave and brilliant as any small independent.

Alex Lubar is chief executive of McCann London

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