Why are we still suffering from network-phobia?

One of advertising's favorite narratives is that the big networks are less creative, and much duller than the independents, writes the chief strategy officer of TBWA.

It didn't take long for news of SapientRazorfish's alienesque birth to be eclipsed by Accenture's less sci-fi but more radical acquisition of Karmarama.

Another week, another agency publishes news about restructuring, condensing, realigning. In these times when we're operating at the speed of chaos, holding companies, agencies ... and consulting firms are keen to demonstrate that they are changing at a necessary velocity. They are making their decisions public, to convince the industry, and most importantly, convince themselves.

Wieden+Kennedy's "Ship of Fools" post on Medium was a delightful reaffirmation of their principles as an agency, their continued devotion to staying independent, and the inevitable confusion of the creative life.

Other recent announcements—from Publicis to Ogilvy—were notable for their focus on aligning agencies under a single P&L, and a greater certainty about the model they had chosen.

For all of its talk of revolution, Publicis' announcement that it is creating a single P&L for the different creative networks hits a familiar theme: the sacrifice of agency culture at the hands of a voracious network.

Even if you're not part of one, you know that networks have a bad rap. Before joining TBWA, I spent most of my career at some combination of independent agencies and micronetworks, and each felt its independence and smaller size made it more agile and creative than any large-scale global network.

I was at BBH when Leo Burnett bought 49 percent of the agency and we were assured that the majority stake would keep the brand and the culture intact. I was at Wieden+Kennedy for some of the times that Dan Wieden stated he'd rather blow the place up than sell. I was long gone from Karmarama when it sold its first chunk to Phoenix Equity, so I'll never know what it's like to discuss shared services when your private equity firm also owns a shoe store and a Thai restaurant.

Agency acquisitions tend to be seen as an inevitable but unfortunate consequence of success and ambition. Short-term growth and investment is often accompanied by disenchanted partners eyeing their earnout clause, and employees wondering what happened to their unique culture. Hence Dan Wieden's preference for TNT.

Advertising spends its time telling stories, and one of its favorite narratives is this: the big networks are less creative, and much duller than the independents or micro-networks. Their culture sucks and their work is bland.

It's easy enough to back up this story with examples of mediocre creep, one-size-fits-all offerings and identical carpets worldwide. But is there an alternative network narrative?

Much of this perception of "network fail" came from a time when size and innovation didn't go hand in hand. Big companies weren't the exciting ones. We believed in the underdog.

These days it's different. We live in a time of category-of-one companies. Where the biggest companies are often the most dynamic and innovative. There's only one smartphone brand, one home sharing brand, only one search engine. And their size only makes them more interesting.

Agency networks are still seen from a 20th century imperialist perspective: exporting an American or European culture across the world. They were built for consistency and replication: to export campaigns globally.

But the 21st century has introduced us a different kind of network. One that grows from the ground up and is as diverse, agile and creative as the people who inhabit it.

Twitter got there first, a social network allowing everyone to take part in a global, public conversation. From speaking truth to power, to harassing your favorite celebrity, it was open for everyone to pitch in and share their voice.

Instagram and Snapchat have made it easy for individual creativity to be part of the way that everyone communicates.  Airbnb thrives on the hospitality of a couple of million hosts who are happy to open their homes for millions of travelers who want to avoid mass tourism.

With all of these networks, it is the combination of different perspectives and voices that give them their vitality.

Can agency networks use their reach and cultural diversity for inputs as well as outputs? To be an inspiration system as well as a delivery mechanism?

At TBWA, we are experimenting with a new editorial capability called Backslash, a move towards behaving more like a social network than an agency network.

We have a growing team of culture spotters around the network, currently 200 and counting. These are strategists, creatives and culture lovers in the world's most dynamic cities. Every day they share category and cultural observations and insights (pro tip, we use Sharpr) and from an edit suite in LA, we produce a daily short film of the best stories and send it out to the whole of TBWA. It's a 24-hour internal feedback loop that allows the company to use its size for inspiration in and delivery out. The author is always credited which gives visibility to people from different offices, overcoming another challenge for networks: anonymity.

Backslash is still evolving, but we see it as a first step to help TBWA behave less like a clunky network, and more like a creative collective of offices and voices, each representing the cities and cultures they inhabit.

Between the independence of a Ship of Fools and the appetite of a culture-stifling holding company, is there a more nimble way that thrives on the inevitability of our culture of chaos? Moving from Karmarama when it was under 30 people to W+K and then TBWA, it didn't feel that either size or ownership mattered as much as an ability to be comfortable with continual turbulence and to know when to change. 

Twenty-first century agency networks are not social networks but they can learn from them. Size can be a benefit rather than a stumbling block. The bigger a network gets, the more diverse its voices should become, if the aim is to maintain the individual personality of every office, or every member, rather than to blur them into a consistent mush and a neatly aligned P&L.

Nick Barham is chief strategy officer of TBWA.

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