So long and thanks for all the krill: why big brands are giving up on whales

I was excited to read yesterday that one of New Zealand’s biggest brands (a bank) has announced it will be ending its relationship with the New Zealand branch of one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.

Now before you accuse me of schadenfreude (I own a small and awesome ad agency, I don’t take any particular joy in the likelihood that some people at the big agency had to tell their kids and partners last night that mummy or daddy might not have a job come Christmas. (I’m not going to cry any tears for their global CFO wondering how to plug the money hole though.)

What excites me about the move is that it signals a growing and positive trend in marketing. The age of the whale is ending: welcome to the age of the dolphin.

Whale agencies have served us well for 100 years or so. Solid, huge, global in reach and immensely powerful, they were a great fit for a time when advertising was about spending millions of dollars to put a message in front of millions of consumers.

But with that size came hunger. Whales live to eat. They need enormous amounts of krill and they need it every day. For that to work in the marketing ocean, whale agencies need whale clients; big, rich and able to fill the money bucket that high overheads and global ownership are constantly emptying.

Dolphins are different. Dolphins eat fish – they get their energy in larger, less frequent bursts than the filter-feeding whales. Eating takes up less time, creating the opportunity for play and allowing complex communities to develop.

Returning to the marketing ocean, in New Zealand dolphin agencies seem to be on the rise, and there are far fewer whales than there were a decade ago.

But how is this working out for the dolphins as businesses? Being a dolphin is fine, if all you want to do is swim about and avoid straying into the wrong Japanese cove. To eat and survive, though, you need clients to buy into the idea of dealing with a smaller fish/marine mammal than they’re used to.

The good news is that’s exactly what is happening.

Spark (when Telecom) was an early leader, moving in the space of a few years from an almost-exclusive whale agency relationship to the more dolphin-friendly way it operates today. (The telco quietly cut its last ties with the whale it had used for decades last year.) Air New Zealand has followed the same path, while at the same time shifting from the “big gorgeous ad” model to the “try lots of shit” (actual name of strategy may vary) approach it’s famous for today.

And now the first of the big banks.

Making the shift from a whale to a pod of dolphins takes more than a press release, of course. It means a lot more work for the client, and that’s a good thing. When your whale agency has handled your account for longer than any of your marketers have worked for you (or in some cases, been alive) it can be easy to lean on the agency for marketing or even business strategy.

When you’re dealing with dolphins, you need to own your own brand. You need to set your own objectives and drive your own marketing strategy. In short, marketers need to step up and be marketers. (And, of course, they need to Be Like Lego, as one genius commentator points out.)

Saying goodbye to a big, dependable whale is a brave decision. But it’s the right one, and one that more and more big clients will make.

Welcome to the age of the dolphin.

  • Vaughn Davis is the owner and creative director of The Goat Farm.
  • This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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