Ad\Vice: Peter Cullinane

Ex-Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide chief operating officer, STW director, Assignment Group co-founder, APN board member and dairy don Peter Cullinane offers up one big hard-earned pearl of advertising wisdom on the perfect modern agency. 

If you were starting an agency now, what would you focus on? 

Creating something entirely new. A new business model that takes the talent our industry attracts (or used to and still could) and applies it, not to creating ads, but creating businesses. And what businesses need the most are ideas that are turned into reality.

The more I see of business outside the walls of advertising, the more convinced I am that the talent our industry has is vastly under-appreciated and under applied and in that lies an equally big opportunity.

In the world of advertising we think about making ads. Difficult to think otherwise when we are organised around advertising agencies. Sometimes we create terrific ones but those occasions are less frequent than ever with the demise of mainstream media as respected communications vehicles coupled with the ever-shrinking budgets to do anything meaningful.

Good ad people believe in the power of advertising, but in the new business I envisage, advertising would be only one string to our bow. And advertising has to be more than simply executing to an agreed plan in which the level of expenditure and even the channels have been pre-determined. We should be equally at home with new market ideas, consumer insights, product development, packaging, innovative promotions, pricing strategies, etc. Essentially everything we touch on in our daily interaction with clients, but only from the outside and without real impact. And we should do it all for ourselves by creating a new business model in which we are the owners.

Thinking about the original Assignment partners, one has a brewery, another a winery and another a creamery. Yet we’re still actively involved in Assignment and our advice is tempered with the reality of running our own businesses.

And in my experience, the best talent in agencies always have a bagful of ideas just waiting to see the light of day. They don’t come to fruition primarily because there isn’t the time, money or conviction to make them happen. And of these three, conviction is the most telling.

So my new agency would be organised around the creation of multiple startups using the organising principles of traditional agencies. Business directors would be exactly that. They would have responsibility for assessing, initiating and shepherding businesses from start-up to standing on their own two feet, to the extent that the businesses are legitimate purchase targets. Account directors, managers etc., would be the day-to-day entrepreneurs dedicated to seeing the businesses get through the trials and tribulations of daily life. How often have we seen talent in agencies who are clearly up for something like this and alternatively, entrepreneurs outside of advertising who through blind determination are succeeding with their startups?

And what of the ‘creatives’?

To my mind the best have always been about ideas first and execution second. In the bold new world I envisage, our best creative talent would be those with creative minds rather than specific executional skills. 

Their days would be filled with not just communications but new product ideas, new ways to think about the consumer, new ways to take on the competitors, anything and everything to get a business—or a series of businesses—up and running. Because here’s the thing. The days of needing to own the means of production are well and truly gone. Now it’s the easiest thing in the world to find third parties to manufacture on our behalf.

What is really holding us back beyond a belief in ourselves and a desire to put in the hours? Our existing clients would welcome it. Their structures don’t allow them to move with the speed and agility we can. Yet they have the resources and desire to acquire businesses when they are up and running. So it’s a win/win.

Money? Not a problem. There’s more capital looking for a good home than homes to house it. 

Nothing is holding us back beyond our lack of imagination and willingness to put in the effort. And the best people in our industry have never been short of either.

The new type of ‘agency’ I envisage needs to address the issues of who owns what. What happens to someone who, when given the opportunity to develop a successful business within the confines of the ‘new agency’ wants to continue with it (or run with it)? The answer is meaningful shares, not in the individual enterprises but in the agency holding company. The more successful businesses created and sold off, the more the holding company is worth. So shares are really meaningful.

I know our industry can do this. And I’d love to do it. As outlined here, it’s not much more than a glimmer of an idea, but as Geoff Ross, someone from our industry who made the leap, said: ‘just start’.

A bit of a tip from the Good Suiting Guide: “Don’t rely on your memory. Write things down. if nothing else, it shows you’re paying attention.
  • Got a question for our advertising agony uncle? Send it to [email protected].
  • This story originally appeared in the September/October edition of NZ Marketing

About Author

Comments are closed.