Tribalism has got an awfully bad name of late

Richard Huntington
Richard Huntington

It's good for clients that advertising agencies are so partisan.

Built on identity and identification, tribalism has a noble birth. But the problem is that it simply cannot stop itself from creating an environment and adherents that dislike, demonise and ultimately attempt to destroy those outside or against their creed. 

And so, tribalism has become a force of division that unpicks and erodes the ever-delicate cohesion of our society. Whether those divisions are based on perspective, experience or birth.

Right now, tribalism appears to be altogether a bad thing, a vestigial limb of humanity best left in a less enlightened era. 

Except, my friend, in the advertising agency. For in this arena tribalism isn’t just a good idea, it is an ace, an undoubted superpower. And in many ways, it is our partisanship that marks us out from the many other people and disciplines that offer professional services to the organisations we serve.

We are deeply partisan. Not just about the agencies and businesses we work in but about the brands and businesses for which we work. The first may be important in building our cultures, driving our success and enabling us to record our progress against those we consider our peers. But it matters little outside our industry. 

The latter, our devotion to the success of our clients’ brands and business – bias even – is something altogether different. It’s an engine for the success of those brands and businesses. An agency that believes wholeheartedly in its clients is an agency that will do what it takes to help them win. Neutrality is not a recipe for success in our world.

Other professional services don’t share this partisanship; in many ways it’s an anathema to them. Lawyers need to be above any sense of loyalty to those that pay them. Even barristers, who appear to act so ferociously on behalf of their clients, are simply honouring the idea that everyone deserves a fair trial and a good defence.

And no one in their heart really wants an accountant who is biased; they are economic umpires that keep the score in a manner that’s fair and square. When the big accountancy firms periodically forget this, all hell breaks loose.

Not so advertising agencies. We are fiercely tribal, wholly partisan and completely biased. It’s in the very fibre of our being to devote ourselves to our clients and to fight tooth and nail for them and with them. 

And this is why great agencies rarely develop sector specialisms. We may have experience of a category but we never have more than one client in it. We work across portfolios, of course, but not with category brands outside that portfolio.

This isn’t simply about codes of conflict, it’s because it is impossible in our world to be bipartisan and to do a good job. Because the truth is that we are not here to offer best practices or processes to our clients, we are here to help businesses win and to make sure their competitors loose. It’s as simple as that.

It is this spirit that marks us apart. I recently asked a consultant friend who worked across multiple businesses as part of a sector specialism about a specific business’ right to win in the market. Met by a look of incomprehension, I realised that this intense fighting spirit was completely alien to them. How to win is the first thing an agency person thinks about. And if there isn’t a clear right to win, the next is how we can reframe the brand or the category so there is.

Our tribalism doesn’t make us blind to the shortcomings of a business, brand or service; indeed it makes us more all the more alive to them and the ways that a promise or purpose is not delivered by experience. Indeed, our task is often to speak truth unto power and caution against behaviours that are counterproductive or harmful. But even the most tense engagement between agency and client usually comes from a shared desire to win.

So, while I despair at the increased tribalism and absolutism of our society, when it comes to work I am proud to be partisan. For unlike other professional services, we have always known that we sell better when we believe what we are selling and we sell what we believe in.

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi 

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