A view from Claire Beale

Why UK advertising needs more independent voices

RIP Johnny Fearless, an agency that did a very wonderful piece of work last year for the Imperial War Museums but, frankly, has done little else lately to justify its continued existence in a crowded and oversupplied market. The shop sadly closed its doors this week after Grafton Group, its biggest client, pulled its advertising.

So four years from launch and Johnny Fearless is no more. This probably doesn’t matter much to most of us. Tragically, a good, nice bunch of people are now facing an uncertain few weeks while they sort out their careers, but the demise of a small agency brand causes barely a ripple.

Still, it’s rare for agencies with a reasonable profile and established leaders to collapse and, when they do, they mostly manage to frame the disaster more positively by engineering a merger with another agency. That tactic is generally pretty easy to pull off since, although there are too many agencies scrambling for the same ad briefs, there’s certainly not enough top talent to go round. So there’s something more honest but also more desperately bleak in just pulling down the shutters.

There's something more honest but also more desperately bleak in just pulling down the shutters

What makes the demise of Johnny Fearless more depressing, though, is the loss of another independent agency voice in the UK market. The marketplace is oversubscribed, yes, but it’s also under-differentiated – too defined by internationally aligned cultures activated by too many cookie-cutter apparatchiks, with not enough renegade independent challenger agencies doing things differently. Sadly, Johnny Fearless never quite managed to be an exciting challenger brand, but we desperately need a thriving bunch of independent agencies making their own rules, creating unique cultures, offering ownership to young talent and having the guts and licence to say no to clients sometimes.

Our industry built its global reputation on the back of a dazzling set of entrepreneurial businesses that produced world-class work. Plenty of those agencies (Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Adam & Eve/DDB, for starters) have continued to dazzle after selling to the big holding companies, but we need a steady stream of start-ups to carry their torch. The fewer independent agencies there are, the riskier it might seem to a conservative client or a talented ad exec to leave the fold of the big networks with their layers of resource and join an ambitious but small and exposed independent.

I know several agency leaders agonising about whether to start their own agency who are sucking their teeth this week after hearing how wrong it went for Johnny Fearless. But the number of new start-ups each year (and the number of closures) is a barometer of our industry’s health and dynamism. We need a few more launches now to get the needle moving in the right direction.