Graham Medcalf talks to intrepid independent-agency owners and some globally-aligned stalwarts to interrogate the advantages and disadvantages of advertising independence.
“We have the best people doing the best work in the best environment we can create,” boasted John Steedman, executive director of WPP AUNZ, in an AdNews interview at the end of 2019. But is that true? Are global agencies employing the best people and doing the best work? Or is it a case of good people spread between independent agencies and the multinationals?
Certainly, there is validity in the contention that the global giants have the edge when it comes to training and development, but isn’t this often a case of bringing younger employees up to speed while some of the best talent heads off to create their own agencies and work for themselves in a free, more inspiring environment that best serves their innate creative talent.
In true advertising speak, Peter Hogan, chief executive of Omnicom Media Group Australia and New Zealand, told AdNews in the same issue: “Agencies need to improve their navigation across the consumer journey and hone their attribution capabilities to prove and drive a marketing return.”
In New Zealand’s independent agency environment, we are a bit more down to earth and the success of the local independents centres on creating long-term client relationships, based on a personal relationship with senior people rather than depending on international alignments.
While it seems a number of the major marketing companies feel safer dealing with big name agencies, this comes at a cost in terms of speed and fees. Indies have to build their reputation over time and through the work they do, showing that they can do it again and again and again.
Without question the resources made available through global alignment give a substantial advantage but being in a group-aligned agency environment often makes it surprisingly difficult for smaller subsidiaries, in markets like New Zealand, to benefit fully from what the networks are able to provide. Promises of access to all sorts of IP can be difficult to attain and the reality is it often doesn’t fit with the local market.
Having said that, there are plenty of benefits which local independent business-owners envy, especially the investment in operational infrastructure like finance and HR.
Indies miss out on global new business. As Rufus Chuter, chief executive of Together, told NZ Marketing: “This can be a double-edged sword as sometimes the global deals aren’t in smaller markets’ favour.”
It is always nice to be handed business and access to global research is of great value. Although it isn’t impossible to build similar and more relevant tools locally.
In attracting the best talent, independents have to work harder to provide their people with development opportunities, especially overseas. The ability to transfer within a network has always been a draw-card for people wanting an OE or to experience life working in another market. This is not impossible to achieve as an independent, but it is harder.
While himself benefiting from international alignment, FCB chief creative officer Tony Clewett admits a healthy mixture of independent and global agencies helps contribute to New Zealand’s brilliant advertising landscape and keeps the big boys on their toes. “This country has a fantastic reputation for its innovation and creative thinking, so the current mix of both certainly seems to be working.”
It’s true an agency like FCB has certain advantages when it comes to partnering with larger clients – with access to the aforementioned global resources and best practices, but there’s also plenty of local businesses looking for similar-minded local agencies.
Tony Bradbourne, co-founder of Special Group, agrees. His contention is that the whole ‘independent’ vs ‘non-independent’ debate is a bit out of date.
“At Special we now have over 100 staff over two offices in Auckland and Sydney (and more to come). We work on some of the world’s biggest brands – Red Bull, Uber, Uber Eats, Smirnoff, Tourism New Zealand, Disney Plus, etc. So, I personally think the debate should really be ‘Is it ‘time’s up’ for traditional multi-national agencies?”
What he alludes to is true. A great independent is obviously better than a poor multinational and vice versa. Better, is always better.
“An independent agency spends more time focusing on their client’s business, and their own business, rather than wasting a single minute constantly reporting back to foreign headquarters or sending request forms to Sydney or New York for approval before you can buy a paperclip, let alone a new laptop for a new valuable staff member. We all know the stories,” Bradbourne says.
There is a counter to this view. Although being part of a larger network, agencies like FCB and DDB in New Zealand have always run and acted more like independent agencies. Sometimes our distance from the rest of the world can be a distinct advantage.
The excellent creative work being offered under the direction of Clewett at FCB and by Damon Stapleton, DDB regional chief creative officer for Australia and New Zealand, has probably less to do with global alignment than with the undoubted creative talent of the individuals concerned.
Across his decorated career, Stapleton’s creative leadership and ability has earned him substantial recognition both regionally and around the world. Stapleton has won more than 500 international awards including 60 Cannes Lions (including a Titanium, Innovation and Grand Prix). 35 of those have been won in the last five years at DDB NZ, but his talent was bought, so to speak, by an astute DDB Australia/New Zealand chairman and chief executive Marty O’Halloran.
Having a heritage
In all the talk about finance, client relationships, strategy, head office reporting and the business side of the industry, we often forget that the creative product is the central dynamic of advertising and regardless of the proliferation of delivery channels in the 21st century, the big idea, like in the Mad Men days of the 50s, 60s and 70s is still where the rubber meets the road.
That moment when you realise that Huxley the dog in the Vodafone 5G ad is not going to be put to sleep; or the tug on the heartstrings when the little boy tearing down the beach, being pursued by a lifeguard, smiles at the camera in the Sky Sport ad, is when you understand storytelling is what we do.
Storytelling and the passion and competence in the way we deliver it is what makes great advertising. And it doesn’t really matter whether you are working at an independent or global agency, whether you are big or small, talent is where success diverges from mediocrity.
Stapleton oversaw both the Vodafone and Sky Sport campaigns. The resource that a network agency like DDB gives him certainly helps but his talent was developed elsewhere in a different market and one tends to think that the awards and great advertising are a confluence of innate talent and the development of that talent under the tutelage of John Hunt at Hunt Lascaris TBWA in South Africa, as much as the freedom and resource given to create good work under the strong business management of DDB NZ chief executive Justin Mowday.
It was Hunt, in an interview with NZ Marketing in 2010, when he was here to judge the Axis Awards, who commented: “It’s peculiar, there’s more fresh, original thinking happening on the outskirts of the empire rather than in those over-structured, torturous, heavy-laden, big city agencies like London and New York.”
What he meant was that in countries like New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the quality of advertising produced, exceeds the size of the industry in those countries and is created despite, not because of, international ownership. Globally-aligned agencies in this country in particular, act more like independents than multinationals.
“Winning awards and creating great advertising has more to do with the ethos of the agency than anything else.”Stapleton says to NZ Marketing.
“Whether you are in an independent agency or part of a global network, it always comes down to the intention of the place in which you are working. When I worked at Hunt Lascaris, it was very clear what the rules were. The building had memory, you knew you had to perform, you had to do great, not just good work.”
Many who have worked in network agencies have experienced a situation where the ‘intention’ was not clear, and the heritage of consistent great work is not there.
At DDB NZ Stapleton works in a well-resourced agency, with a lot of capability, the right intention and a heritage of award-winning work. This makes it easier to continue in that mould.
“The ethos of the network gives a road map,” he says. “I get exposed to things globally, where I see what’s happening in Europe, New York and elsewhere. I guess it’s a fusion between the capability of the agency you are in, with the philosophy of the network.”
There is no doubt that there are great agencies in bad networks and bad agencies in predominantly good networks, but the sweet spot is where you have both. An agency is not a building, it is the people who work there, and talent determines the quality of the offering. With talent comes passion, and a great agency, whether an independent or a networked agency, creates the environment where the talent and passion can be expressed. Agency people work long hours and if you take the passion out of the agency, you will not succeed. You can’t teach people to care. Passion is the driver for success.
“There is a conundrum with creative artistry,” Stapleton says. “You have to make money and deliver a return. But the way you make a profit is counter-intuitive. By doing things that don’t make sense to the guys with spreadsheets, is how you make the spreadsheets better.”
With the independents, the passion lies in ownership and there is something about ‘independence’ that attracts some of the best creative thinkers. Dave Droga, John Hegarty, Dan Wieden, Mark Waites, Stef Calcraft, Libby Brockhoff, and Robert Saville – all started and ran or run independent agencies. Wieden & Kennedy and Mother are still fiercely independent and leading the world with their work.
Bradbourne has a strong belief that the agencies that produce the creative work that moves the entire industry forward – are all independent. But again, seeing the stature of the work coming out of some of the local, globally-aligned network agencies, I would disagree. Talent at whatever agency is what moves the industry forward and you can find this across the board. As Jamie Hitchcock, creative partner at The Enthusiasts, commented to NZ Marketing: “The point is that independent or global, it all comes back to the quality of the people working on the business.”
Bradbourne has a right to his view. Special Group opened in Sydney five years ago to provide the same level of strategic and creative thinking for their clients on both sides of the Tasman. Special Group now has over 100 people across the two offices and work with Tourism New Zealand, Red Bull and Uber Eats in both countries and has won ‘Agency of the Year’ titles in both markets.
Regardless, many an indie owner or independent talent dream of being bought by a global entity and the examples of multinational agencies buying up successful independents cover decades. As recently as August this past year Publicis Groupe ANZ announced the acquisition of New Zealand independent, full-service media agency MBM.
Michael Rebelo, chief executive of Publicis Groupe ANZ, told StopPress: “New Zealand is an important growth market for the Groupe and the acquisition of MBM is the first in a series of investments we will be making in the region to further strengthen our existing brands and grow new capabilities here.”
So, the desire for the global agencies to absorb local, independent talent is as prevalent as ever.
Speaking to NZ Marketing, Rebelo is adamant that the only thing MBM, and another acquisition, Affinity ID, have really lost in joining the Publicis Groupe is their independence on paper.
“The last thing we would do after buying two incredibly successful companies full of talented people and winning business, is to come in and start telling them what to do. We want to amplify and strengthen their offering, learn from them and enable them to do more of what they do best, then get out of the way and let them do it.”
Scale and access to additional expertise is a gain and the two former indies now have the ability to work together with our other agencies, under the Publicis “Power of One” offering. They are already working with fellow group agencies Saatchi & Saatchi, Starcom and Zenith.