Without hesitation, I would say that advertising is experiencing a flowering, despite the unsettling climate change in our industry. We are experiencing disruption created by consultancies that are moving into agency turf. Brands are increasingly shifting their marketing budgets, modifying their contracts and bringing marketing capabilities in-house. The digital/data revolution is pushing agencies to adapt or die. Amazon, Google, and Facebook seem to be everywhere, taking the lead on creativity and communications, leaving traditional Mad Men in the dust.
In an industry where uncertainty is the norm, there is good news. Independent agencies are on the rise. According to Agency Spotter there are more than 120,000 marketing and advertising agencies in the U.S. and over half a million worldwide. Most of these certainly are independent, a sure sign that there is health and vitality in our business, and opportunity for both entrepreneurs and creatives.
Last year in a UK survey, QueryClick reported that 150 brand CMOs were planning to change their digital marketing agency “with a significant number planning to move away from large network agencies to appoint independent firms.” Clearly Indie agencies are stepping in and leaving their mark where huge legacy agencies have been slow to adjust to the challenges and shortcomings facing the industry today.
The parallel of course is Hollywood, where indie film companies rose as legacy movie studios and broadcast networks waned. Those studios are now in danger of being over-run and replaced by user-friendly, democratic streaming, and digital producers and platforms.
It is time - and timely - right now for the agency world to openly embrace its rapidly growing independence, and to make a declaration of freedom. The recent acquisition of major indie agency Droga5 by Accenture got a lot of press, most likely because it was an exception rather than the rule. I believe the long-term trend today in advertising is not selling out, it’s standing tall and being free.
Indeed most agencies today are born free, yet lose that freedom over time, either by changing as they scale or by getting sucked up into a holding network vortex, or nowadays, absorbed into a consultancy. This is very similar to indie rock bands and filmmakers who grow so popular and profitable that they almost immediately lose their edge.
So what does it take to keep that original intangible feeling going, especially today, when there are some clear advantages to selling out your freedom?
Here’s what it takes:
The right team
Free agencies need free thinkers and problem solvers who understand that change can come from anywhere. They understand that creativity is not just business, its personal, and they have to be comfortable with putting themselves on the line. At the same time, they must have an entrepreneurial spirit to delve not just into clients’ business problems and how to solve them, but also to understand the agency’s business problems and how their work will impact the bottom line. Clock punchers definitely are not welcome.
The right leadership
It takes the right leadership to motivate everyone towards that one goal. The key is to be a good listener, and be open to feedback and opinions. It's not about being a full democracy or a cooperative. Leaders still need to lead, but it’s more about being in-tune and sensitive to the overall sentiment, almost at a personal level.
The right clients
Clients need to be open minded, not just about the work but also about how to work together with their agency partners. It's key for clients to be open about their business needs too, and open to collaboration. Marketing can have a big impact on their business, and an indie agency can adapt easily to truly impact the bottom line.
There’s a big difference between being a freethinker who has the ability to be liquid and adapt when executing, and just being loose and having no structure. No chaos is the rule.
While it’s hard to define what the right type of agency should be, the key is being able to change quickly. Having the ability to move at the speed of the market. From exploring new lines of revenue, to focusing on new emerging platforms, speed and agility are key.
The right culture
Independent agencies cultivate and care for their culture, and they swear by transparency in all of their transactions and business relationships, especially with clients. They’re small enough to pull it off, to have open books without a lot of concealed overhead. Having the visibility of an agency’s progress and profit is a great way to keep your whole team aligned and motivated.
Acceptance also is a cultural asset. Being open minded and more democratic can cultivate the feeling of being part of a collective where every person is welcome and heard. And of course, there’s the fun, personable environment of an indie agency, where everyone feels like they belong to something special, something with purpose.
The right time in history
There seem to be more start-ups, clients, and vendors than ever, which makes it easier to prototype a concept. Today clients are more open to smaller shops, as the big boys continue to remain out of touch and lack the relevance clients look for to bring more specialization and efficiencies to their marketing plans.
Although historically he may not be a Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln comes close. His words are appropriate today for all of us in this industry who continue to pursue our independence, and our freedom:
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
So let’s change the face of the industry together, for the better. This is the time for advertising’s indies to shine. It’s our time to rule. We’ve never had so many clients and so much business. Creativity flourishes in independence and freedom. Let’s not be afraid. If you’re not working at an indie shop, join one. Or better yet, start your own.
Happy Independents Day.