Agencies, brands and Brexit

“The customer is always right.” We’ve all said that and smiled. It’s a catchphrase we bandy around with due sincerity or snide cynicism depending on the occasion. It’s similar in sentiment to “The people have spoken.” And that’s exactly what the people did in last week’s UK Brexit vote.

But did they make the right call? What happens next? And how is this relevant to us? While two of those questions can only be answered in time, here’s a topical advertising analogy – and a fundamental truth that underscores our industry.

If the EU was Omnicom, who are all the players?

Brexit (if you’re wondering) is the popular name for the British referendum on leaving the European Union. It’s the vote that split a nation – over-simplified on one side and under-explained on the other. If we play out their story in agency land, the analogy works like this:

Individual agencies are nation states. Independent countries, fiercely proud of unique culture and their ability to make sovereign decisions. The EU is like an agency network (Omnicom, WPP, Dentsu) – largely invisible to the guy on the street, but hugely influential big picture. Then, in the context of this analogy, clients and their brands represent global ideology, world markets and special interests and the people are the people, or customers. It’s not a perfect analogy – but let’s go with it.

Like the strength of union? Vote remain.

The strength of an agency network is the power of scale. Networks offer security of supply, stability of leadership and highly trained diplomats for trade negotiations and conflict resolution. That’s what being part of the EU meant for the UK. Big brands like to deal with big organisations. (Markets like consistency, special interests like special influence and ideology is best cemented in scale.)

Within those networks, individual agencies are encouraged to celebrate cultural identity, quietly bolster each other through internal competition and even occasionally go to war (with very specific terms of engagement). But the strength of the union is the scale of the union. Networks have far more checks and balances and a lot more balancing of cheques – but everyone understands the quid pro quo: the mothership makes the rules.

Like the power of independence? Vote leave.

Independent agencies are sovereign states, individual countries that weave in and around the network Goliaths, struggling to be seen and hustling to be heard. Most have specialist exports, strategic alliances and a raft of free trade agreements. But the true power of independence is the pace of independent decision making. No one needs to be consulted in an indie. No politics, no ‘network rules’ – just the proud flag of independence hoisted above the motivating reality of paying next month’s bills.

Understanding Brexit. What if Colenso left?

To reframe Friday’s decision though the industry analogy, let’s use Colenso as an example. Founded in 1969, Colenso was proudly independent until 1973. That’s when the principals sold 20 percent to Clemenger and they joined the EU. 43 years in and they’re still a driving force in the industry – and the Clemenger Group. But what if the people of Colenso decided they’d be better off alone?

Effectively, the UK decision to leave Europe is like Scott Coldham or Nick Worthington galvanising the troops, buying the business back and setting sail under an independent flag. Would it work? Possibly. Is it likely? Nope. As a wise man once said, “You can stand in the tent pissing out, or you can stand outside and piss on it.” The people of the UK just chose the latter. And right now, it’s pissing down with rain.

It’s never as simple as it seems.

“In or out?” is a binary decision. That’s how referendums work. Yes or no? Right or wrong? Left or right? Binaries are comprehensible and box-tick-able. But none of this stuff is as simple as it looks. The world doesn’t spin on binaries, it needs balance. In politics, like life – and even advertising – there is no fundamental black or white. While battles may be won or lost, wars simply finish, usually somewhere in the middle. The world is painted in a rainbow of grey through collaboration and compromise.

There is no right or wrong. Only people.

I did promise a fundamental truth. And it’s always good to close the loop. So here it is. We all know that the customer isn’t always right, but she does have a vote. And even while our clients pay us and their bosses pay them, the ultimate decision maker is the person using EFTPOS on the street. Those are the people who matter.

From what I’ve read, a whole lot of people in the UK wanted to raise a middle finger at the establishment. Far fewer cared much about the Europe thing. But somehow, someone missed that point. So if there’s anything to learn from Brexit it’s that people have a voice. That means doing more than talking about customer-centricity. It means listening, thinking, acting and understanding.

Above all, it means respecting our customers – even the seemingly stupid ones. Because once the people have spoken, the customer is always right. Well 52% of them anyway.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

  • Michael Goldthorpe is King of Hunch. Still proudly independent – like just under half of Scotland.

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Michael Goldthorpe is Managing Partner at Hunch.

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