Year ahead for ad agencies: Stop flogging a dead horse

Agencies must remind people why they should buy stuff.

Flogging a brand’s 'higher purpose' is like flogging a dead horse. Agencies must remind people why they should buy stuff. And a good thing too

Attempting to identify the characteristics that will be used to define a forthcoming year (let alone a decade) before it has really begun is a task akin to playing hoopla in the wind. But, in the first year of the 2020s, there are clear trends and observations of which advertising agencies might need to take note, if they are to help safeguard their future following a period when their business models were threatened, causing several venerable agency brands to disappear.

When advertising historians (should they exist) look back on the previous decade, they’ll probably define the era as one of saccharine sentimentality, evidenced throughout by John Lewis ads (frequently copied but never knowingly bettered) and the damp eyes shrouded by a thin veil of brand purpose. This decade is likely to be made of slightly sterner stuff – a new reality is dawning.

As the old cliché goes, trust is hard won and easily lost, and one can’t have failed to notice that trust in brands, as well as in institutions, has waned. This has not been a recent phenomenon but a steady drip that has swelled into a flood over the latter years of the past decade. The ad industry’s response of finding and giving brands a higher "purpose", often when none was either apparent or appropriate, looks like it has run out of road.

It’s not that the intention was dishonourable, and, in many instances, purpose-driven campaigns dominated the awards schemes, but the bandwagon has become overladen and is tipping over. Moreover, nebulous purpose is no longer a credible fig leaf for a brand to cover its immodesty when its own impact on the environment and society is likely to come under increasing consumer scrutiny and activism.

Consequently, the need for agencies to move brands beyond promoting philosophical purpose and into articulating the utility these brands provide, and at every stage of the user experience, is a clear way to achieve standout. After all, when it’s not possible for a brand to do good, being good at what you do is not a bad alternative positioning, and at least it has credibility. Successful, modern and popular brands such as Airbnb and Uber adopt this strategy: they don’t make specious purpose claims, indeed some would say that they are fundamentally bad, instead relying on their superior service (at every point of the customer journey) and usefulness to prove themselves to their users.

Because of this, the days when ad agencies just created brand communications (usually for a media agency to place) should be coming to an end – and not before time. Looking to the future, they must now get themselves involved in every part of the brand experience, from design and tone of voice to positioning, as well as at every part of the customer journey in order to secure their place and relevance and help their clients’ business.

This, of course, also requires a change in mindset by those clients, as well as by ad agency leaders. Too few brands are yet to embrace the concept of chief customer experience officer with overall responsibility for every consumer touchpoint. Frequently, marketing still sits in its silo, responsible for overseeing advertising but not engaged in product design, for instance. With agencies upskilling (or reskilling) to give them the capabilities in design and UX, voice and AI, clients, too, will need to find people with broader skills than just, at its most simplistic level, spending marketing budgets and signing off work.

We’ll see transformation and integration with more diverse revenue streams than ever, but underpinned by the creativity that has made UK agencies stand out, except in this case across a range of touchpoints and not just channels. That’s the new reality, and if that doesn’t fire you up for the year – and the decade – ahead, then you might want to get out before you’re found out. 

Whether it will be the networks, the independents, the "cagencies" or some as-yet unlaunched start-up (or indeed a combination of all four) that are best placed to deliver on this new vision, we’ll have to wait and see. But those that are ready and willing to embrace change, and fast, will put themselves in pole position. Game on.

So, embrace creativity, cut to the human experience and make the connection

Anna Panczyk

Chief executive, Grey London

Since moving to the UK, I’ve seen the very best our industry and London has to offer. People, energy and, of course, creativity are the driving force behind impressive campaigns. All this makes me feel very positive about the opportunities and challenges we face as the new decade dawns.

The one thing that we’ve learned over the past few years is that, no matter what the disruption, human creativity is the way to ride it out. Embracing this will see us moving towards collective experiences that feel more authentic.

It’s vital, then, that brands celebrate and elevate the human experience to cut through.

One memorable example of this was Pernod Ricard’s "The time we have left" – an online calculator to determine how much longer people had to spend with family and friends in their lifetime. This cut to the core of the human experience, and gave this brand a right to be in the space. 

In a different way, "Skittles commercial: the Broadway musical" went bold with experiential. It turned what could have been a targeted ad on its head and made it truly emotive.

These brilliant ideas show how brands can harness emotions to reach customers. It’s no longer enough just to be social online. Consumers are already questioning their relationships with social-media platforms, and brands are following suit. Last October, Grey London published research that found 63% of consumers trusted social media less than they did two years ago, and 96% said they don’t trust what influencers say. 

So, keep your eyes open in the coming year for brands following Procter & Gamble’s lead and changing the way they use social media, with a shift towards more meaningful content and away from familiar ads and influencer relationships. 

Advertisers are kicking off a new decade with a year of cultural moments to play with. The Olympics, Euro 2020, even the US presidential election – these mega-events provide us with the fuel our industry needs to build famous campaigns and connect with people around the world.

Here in the UK, we’re also facing a potential pathway for Brexit. With the prospect of removing some of that doubt as a backdrop, it looks like sporting and cultural events will provide some brilliant spaces to work in this year, leading to the creation of groundbreaking work that can help customers and brands grow closer through the most emotive, effective and authentic types of experiences.

We’ll rediscover our swagger, show our mettle and prove our worth

Bill Scott

Chief executive, Droga5 London

In many ways, 2020 is shaping up to be a belter of a year. It will yield new Olympic heroes, new European football champions, the chance of a new US president and the hope of a meaningful conclusion on Brexit. 

That optimism and hope can be true for our industry, too, if we choose to lean in to it. 

The end of the last decade was rough on adland. There’s no denying the uncertainty of Brexit led to caution and has taken its toll – chief marketers waiting to see what happens in a stalemate with procurement, as they sit with bated breath to see what budgets they might or might not be afforded. Global consumer confidence is reaching a five-year low. The planet is dying around us and our children are looking to us for answers. 

As an industry, we continue to be hard on ourselves. Transformation agendas, implementing radically new models and methodologies, diversifying revenues and cost-cutting exercises, not to mention endless self-scrutiny on how "we’re all moving it on" or "we haven’t moved it on enough". 

We’re dangerously close to suffering from change fatigue.  

We know we’re an industry with self-induced cannibalisation for each other’s prized accounts, an ouroboros hungry to find new revenue and defend top lines, to fight for a creative white space. Most egregious, we’re stealing each others’ most precious asset – our talent.  

Yet 2020 really can be the year that sees us pivot out of this rut. When we rediscover our swagger, look outward and use our creativity.

Despite many clients investing in new operating models – in-house, new rosters, blended teams – the timeless need from clients is for external intervention for step-change creativity to fuel their business. 

In fact, ironically, there’s an emerging trend from those clients who have invested in their own in-house capability who now go to market because they’re still not getting the data, strategic or creative leaps they need. 

Now, more than ever, agencies need to show their mettle, and prove their commercial worth. If the last decade was about getting our house in order, we should all be more match-fit than ever to deliver the alchemy of creative magic and tech science. 

Now it’s time to deliver and feed clients and their customers’ imagination again in terms of what’s possible with breakthrough creativity and brand experiences. 

Do this in 2020 and our industry can prove we can be champions of creativity. Again.

Embrace change but don’t be consumed by it

Chris Hirst

Global chief executive, Havas Creative

"Prediction," as Nils Bohr once opined, "is very difficult, especially if it is about the future." Armed with the sage advice of a man whose work I found utterly impossible to understand when at university, I will attempt what I did then – to avoid the question.

When thinking about the future, we tend to overestimate short-term change and underestimate long-term change. With that in mind, next year is likely to feel much like this (although that is hardly a comfort). But we are at the beginning of long-term changes that may be profound: from the UK and US elections; to the impact of 5G; to the shackling (or not) of the tech behemoths and the implications of environmental change. Any one or all of these waves could become tsunamis.

How do we deal with this in our lives, our businesses and as members of society? I believe that, despite how it often feels, more stays the same than changes – it’s just less interesting and newsworthy to point it out. And the nature of the human condition is to screen out the familiar. Agencies remain, in all our multi-faceted glory, people businesses; consultancies that sell strategies and deliver execution. We think and do. To thrive, we must embrace change, but not be consumed by it. We must stay true to what is at our core.

Four truths endure for creative agencies: be indispensable to your clients; create a culture that allows your teams to thrive; learn how to win pitches (which, let’s be honest, means stealing your competitors’ clients); and, of course, creativity, creativity, creativity. Creativity that cuts through our noisy lives will remain as valuable, differentiating and elusive as ever.

Our business is difficult, but not complicated. Don’t let the doomsayers and "complexifiers" derail or distract you. Being world-class at the things that require no talent makes sweating the big stuff just a little easier. Be honest about the challenges you face (it’s harder than it seems) and ambitious about your goals (which is scary, because you might fall short). Be decisive and allow those around you to do likewise. Nurture an effective culture around a motivated and diverse talent pool and next year, you’ll win more than you lose. 

There’s no mystery to it. Yes, it’s difficult, but 'twas ever thus. Some things never change.

Ditch the silos. Be ego-free, open, fluid and find a shared goal

Zaid Al-Zaidy

Chief executive, The Beyond Collective

Our UK industry has an unfair share of incredible creative talent. But it’s distributed across an oversupplied sea of agency offerings, each claiming to deliver different components of a customer journey, which clients then struggle to piece together.  

In 2020, we must remind ourselves that brand is everything we do. And to "do" successfully, we need ego-free, open, fluid, full-disciplinary teams united around one shared goal.

There is both an opportunity and an obligation for agencies to develop porous borders and assimilate and collaborate with best-in-class individuals and other agencies to help clients deliver growth for their brands.

Indeed, it is predicted that 50% of all S&P brands will be replaced by 2030. Rather than waiting to swoop down on brands seeking a last-ditch, shiny, silver bullet, our agency landscape needs to reorganise itself away from silo specialisms towards a more integrated and coherent solution for clients’ brands.

The new year heralds new energy, hope and optimism. But at the same time, many clients will be faced with the same challenges as before – tall-order business objectives made impossible to achieve through agencies separated by P&Ls and individual agendas. WPP’s announcement that a third of its new business pipeline is "integrated" is a sign of much-needed change, as is the move by Centrica and Unilever to engage agencies at a holding group level.

But it is not just the billion-pound businesses that are demanding one multi-disciplinary team with a unified trajectory. Marketers from brands of all sizes are crying out for coherent stewardship from agency partners.

Strategy teams need to be T-shaped. Media folk should be agnostic and imaginative. Creatives and producers need to be inventive and agile. And account management teams need to be focused on business, brand and creative. Highly networked and able to assemble and co-ordinate multi-talented teams, from within and without their agency walls.

For years, the term "integrated" has risked synonymy with "Jack of all trades, master of none". In this new world, however, we must stop lamenting "all the beautiful days gone by...". The entire agency team needs to be as in love with a big filmmaking opportunity as it is with a more intimate, and no less vital, one-to-one brand experience. 

Only then will 2020 bring a positive step-change in the way our industry works, freeing up creative talent to produce work of such merit that the value of agency partners is clear. 

Embrace the genius of 'and'. Reject the tyranny of 'or'

Chris Pearce

Chief executive, MRM McCann London

Those who enjoyed the BBC’s superb adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials will be pleased to know he’s just completed another book in the series, The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth

Extraordinarily, this fantasy saga has become a metaphor for the state of the customer relationship sector. Lyra (the heroine) and her daemon Pan (her soul in the form of an animal, for those not familiar) are at war with one another. Lyra has become obsessed with ruthless logic and a cynical disregard for mythology and storytelling. In turn, Pan despairs at her lack of curiosity and sense of adventure. Lyra wakes up one morning to find that Pan has left her, with the note: "Gone to look for your imagination." 

That’s how our category can feel sometimes. We are rightly obsessed with data-driven user journeys, and next best action logic. We revel in AI-driven "decisioning engines". And yet we’re also about helping to grow meaningful relationships between brands and consumers with highly creative experiences. 

For some, this trinity of data, technology and creativity can make for unhappy bedfellows. So how will this be resolved in 2020 and who will win the war for growth? There is one overarching imperative that will guide the success of my group, and three principles for the industry. We intend to embrace the genius of "and", and reject the tyranny of "or".  

In simple terms, the next few years will be about best-in-class specialists combining fluidly and collaboratively to deliver growth for our clients. 

Technology and creativity. Purpose and profit. Soul and logic. Scale and agility. You get the picture. But to truly succeed at this, these three principles will come to the fore: clarity, commitment, confidence. Here’s why: 


"In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power," thunders Yuval Harari in his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. And he’s right. Our ability to cut through the noise, to simplify, to elicit meaning will be at a super-premium. 


Once we have that much-needed clarity, we have to be "all in" for our clients. Only absolute focus on successful client outcomes will cut it. 2020 will not be for the faint-hearted. 


Confidence is contagious and much-needed in this uncertain world. It’s time the customer relationship sector regained some swagger and found its lost imagination.

Allow necessity to be the mother of invention…

Ete Davies

Chief executive, Engine Creative

Last year was undoubtedly difficult for the industry. Economic uncertainty and political volatility led to a host of challenges and disruptions to how we do business, but, if you think that was tough, just wait as 2020 hits.

While it’s unclear exactly how the election result, Brexit and looming economic slowdown will affect us, one thing is clear, our existing industry challenges will continue. Short-termism, reduced budgets, in-housing, martech, the rise of the consultancies, lack of trust in digital, the decline of the agency of record, creative effectiveness. They aren’t going anywhere soon. To compound matters, a whole new set of challenges will arise, such as C-suite-level roles being merged and new reimbursement models being mandated by brand owners. 

As our clients face increasing pressure to drive growth in their own disrupted markets, they will expect agencies to accelerate the seemingly never-ending quest for "faster, better, cheaper". However, most agencies have tapped out the change that can be derived from tinkering around the edges of existing business models and will be forced, for the first time in decades, to embark on real and radical change programmes within their business, and this is where the opportunity will lie.

If change is embraced quickly and strategically, agencies can create and propel whole new product offerings and revenue drivers. In the advertising space, we will see agencies unlocking and driving new modes of storytelling through innovative technologies like voice and VR, new channels such as podcasts and streaming services, and truly integrating data into the creative process.

Moreover, agencies will delve further into the service-offering part of their business, pushing upstream by offering strategic consultancy on marketing technology and in-house capabilities, and by collaborating with client product teams to develop new services and potentially sharing IP.

This is the perfect environment for independent agencies to flourish, and 2020 may lead to indie mini-networks forming as they seek to outsmart and outpace the big networks by partnering with each other to develop a broad pallet of deep skills. They could offer diversity of thinking by inviting people with different backgrounds and experiences into their mix, developing interesting new revenue models that are based on value and output, rather than time, and generally being innovative, nimble and experimental. 

It might be tough, but it’s going to be exciting.

…and make money from your art

Neil Munn

Global chief executive, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

How quickly the world is changing. Uber is buying vehicles. Facebook, Google and Apple are all making content. Alibaba, ASOS, Mr Porter and Amazon all have their own brands. Airbnb is buying real estate. And online businesses are now the biggest investors in TV.

It would be easy to describe this as the tech titans turning traditional. But "traditional" isn’t the right word. What’s going on is the realisation that the marketing game is still built on the same fundamentals as always. The aim of the game is still to get customers to notice you, to light up their imaginations and to make them feel something.

And, fortunately, feelings are what we still do, underneath all the building of new channel capabilities. People. Art. Creativity. Story. Pastiche. Subversion. Wit. Parody. Drama. Simplicity. Ooohs. Ahhs. All the things that make your heart flutter or eyes sting. In an ad, in a shop, out of Alexa. It doesn’t matter where. 

It’s what we do that no-one else can touch. But we need to work harder at giving that truth meaningful traction. As a former client myself, here are some of the tasks that spring to mind for agencies:

  • Spend time on the merchandising of creativity. Collective and urgent action is needed to inspire marketing FOMO among business leaders. 
  • Use the left brain to protect and serve the right. We need to invent new ways to smuggle creativity in, to make it feel less risky and to use the lack of marketing difference that is becoming prevalent in these more logical times to our advantage, not disadvantage.
  • Aim for the media space between people’s ears. There are clever new ways to get to people. But that’s all plumbing, and there will always be cheaper plumbers available. Let’s refocus on the clever new ways to move people. 
  • More memes in meetings. Agency time was always supposed to be the fun bit of the week as a client. Let’s keep that alive because it’s the right brain people fall in love with. Even clients. 

Business is not easy at the moment; growth can be elusive. In periods like this it’s the unchanging truths that matter. So, here’s to remembering that it’s the art that makes the money. And here’s to the all the logic, hustle and influence we can muster in 2020 to underpin and protect that precious, profitable truth.

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