Why it's time to ditch your five-year agency plan

Martin Sorrell boldly announced at the Guardian's Changing Media Summit last week that "we're not in the advertising business anymore." The managing partner at Forever Beta reflects on why agencies need to ditch their five-year plans as a result

The agency model is fucked.

The fabled glory days are over. No new news here. The doom clouds have been an ever present spectre on the horizon for as long as I can remember, certainly as long as I’ve worked in the creative industry.

Increasingly converging forces — disruptive innovations, macro economic pressure, a dearth of skilled creative talent in all shapes and sizes — have combined, and the result is an industry under increasing scrutiny.

We all know the traditional agency model is under a huge amount of pressure, but it goes further than the big established network agencies. Independent boutique agencies are also suffering. Client budgets are increasingly pinched and they have a myriad of choices at their disposal. Like I say, the doom clouds seem to be rolling ever closer.

The only thing is, I don’t buy it. There’s no doubting how competitive the market is right now. But for me these challenges represent opportunities and an environment in which the strongest and most innovative can come out of the shadows.

Allow me to explain with a quick story. Something like two years ago, we got a "grown up" in, a tried and proven senior agency professional, to review our business and help us continue our growth trajectory. While he was with us we considered all the usual things, but it was only when he asked the quite simple question "Where do you see yourselves in five years?" that we hit a bit of a mental block.

Up until that moment we’d pretty much done everything by the agency handbook; we’d taken all the best learnings from some of the excellent agencies we’d worked at and replicated them at Forever Beta. They all had five-year plans; why didn’t we? It was a concern.

It was only after some considerable head scratching and perhaps a little sensible post-rationalization that we decided we don’t actually want to know where we’ll be in five years. Why would we restrict ourselves in such a way? We’re all abundantly clear that the traditional model is under pressure. Why not try something different and radical (after all we are called Forever Beta). Had we finally grown into our name and proposition?

That was some two years ago, and how things have changed. We’re no longer a traditional creative agency; we’re something else. Sure, we do big integrated campaigns, we’re passionate about these things — they’re our bread and butter and something we’ve spent our careers mastering. But now we want to help our client partners with a more intelligent service offering. The thinking is pretty straightforward: use the amazing talent at our disposal and deliver a whole spectrum of other interesting effective ideas, not just TV campaigns.

Last year we did exactly that. Our tech-orientated innovation wing, Beta Labs, is doing some exciting work with vodka brand Absolut out in the US, helping set and deliver against their proposition. Under this proposition we’ve delivered Absolut Reality — a live Cardboard VR experience. We’ve also produced our very own products, with lab projects like the friend locating app Sup App going on to get funding and achieve independence in its own right. (Only a few weeks ago this was one of the App Store’s Best New Apps.)

Our vision is to gather as many talented people together — traditional creative and strategy, along with all the compelling people we’ve met in the tech space — and create interesting and effective ideas. This might mean a TV campaign, or VR experience, or it could be a new innovation. Who knows?

The point is, if we had a plan mapping out where we wanted to be in five years that was locked into a forecast and budget, we wouldn’t have the freedom to experiment, to test, to learn, and to do things differently.

Things are moving so fast right now, I have no idea what we’ll all be doing in a year, let alone five. What I do know is we want to be at the forefront of interesting and effective.

By releasing ourselves from the security of a five-year vision we’re free to not just react to change but leverage it.

Alan Fayolle is the managing partner of Forever Beta.

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