To some, this is simply madness. These agencies are launching themselves, lemming-like, into a UK market squeezed by the triple whammy of depressed consumer spending, the shift away from traditional adspend and towards "conversational" content marketing, and clients’ general downgrading of creative marketing to data- and procurement-led strategies.
This is why the UK market – and, indeed, the global ad business – is increasingly controlled by the "big four" groups; their geographical scale and media management muscle appealing to numbers-obsessed marketers.
There is certainly a danger that these start-ups will grow to a certain size (20-30 staff) and then hit the wall; unable to land serious blue-chip clients because they can’t compete on these counts.
All of which explains the present lack of domestically grown, independently owned agencies – creative, media or digital – of any size. Yes, Mother is still a class act and Work Club buoyant in the digital space, but Bartle Bogle Hegarty, CHI & Partners, AKQA and LBi have all joined WPP or Publicis. And, of course, Wieden & Kennedy and Droga5 began elsewhere.
But, in this sense, it’s profoundly encouraging that people still want to start creative businesses in the UK. I would argue it’s essential. The dearth of independent powerhouses helps explain today’s shortage of outstanding work.
Work Club’s Jon Claydon expresses it perfectly using the analogy of the way mothers or nannies look after children: "There’s a difference between looking after one’s charge and preparing to take a bullet for it."
(Of course, this ignores the fact that great work can come from group-owned agencies – not least the Omnicom-owned BMP DDB or the Trevor Beattie-inspired TBWA a decade hence – but the point stands.)
Look to East London and the start-up culture in UK technology is vibrant. And this is increasingly converging with the creative sector, as seen with The Bakery and The Trampery projects.
So there is no reason why the same spirit of enterprise shouldn’t flourish in the ad industry. But there’s an important proviso here: any creative start-up failing to embrace the aforementioned shifts in the market will smash into that proverbial wall.
Britain’s marketing scene urgently requires fresh voices and ambitious young shops, but they must not be in denial of how much the world has changed.