Fabula closure is stark reminder of changing business reality for agencies
A view from Jeremy Lee

Fabula closure is stark reminder of changing business reality for agencies

If stark evidence was needed of the changing business reality for agencies, this was it.

Hopes were high for Fabula when it came storming out of the traps with a brilliant TV spot for William Hill. Its demise five years later was marked with a remarkably frank and honest statement blaming market conditions and a Looney Tunes still on the agency’s website that read "That’s all Folks!"

It was a remarkably unsentimental end to this quirky little agency, based on a barge in Shoreditch and founded by the two former WCRS executive creative directors Yan Elliott (now at CHI & Partners) and Luke Williamson. But if stark evidence was needed of the changing business reality for agencies, particularly smaller and mid-sized ones, this was it.

Football passion from William Hill

While the rest of Fabula’s creative work might not have lived up to the high standards set by William Hill, which subsequently (and briefly) took the work in-house, it managed to build up a decent enough roster of clients and produced some decent and innovative work. Advertisers including Unilever, ITV, Boden and Made.com were all attracted to its model that included design, content and strategy.

However many were not willing to pay for it on a retained basis preferring instead to offer it projects, while others followed William Hill’s lead and took their creative in-house – the new bogeyman, particularly for smaller agencies, which traditionally have had bigger network rivals looking to eat their lunch. 

For a small agency like Fabula – even in its pomp its full-time headcount never topped a score – it became unsustainable and this, combined with an unwillingness to lower its creative standards, meant that Williamson decided to abandon ship. While there are only a handful of staff members affected by the closure, the ripple effect means that other suppliers will be hit too. It’s telling that Williamson has decided to quit running his own business – Elliott too found that that it wasn’t for him – and says that his next career move might be client-side.

There was an interesting battle on Campaign’s website between the serial agency entrepreneur Neil Hughston, formerly of the defunct Johnny Fearless and now at Duke, and Gravity Road’s Mark Boyd. The former thought that talk of new agency models was superfluous and that it was the quality of the work that make – or break – start-up agencies. Boyd, on the other hand, reflected that those agencies that think only in terms of commercial television are living in the past. Both are right to an extent but there are other bigger factors at play.

Agencies looking for succour from in-house could point out that William Hill only handled its advertising in-house for a period, perhaps realising its mistake. However ignoring its threat could lead to further agencies going on enforced "west and wewaxation", Elmer Fudd style.