Have agency hostilities ended?

Is the collaborative nature of young tech companies starting to rub off on creative agencies, or is adland still a dog-eat-dog world, James Swift wonders.

Have agency hostilities ended?

Agencies have been smitten with tech start-ups for years now – a fact reflected in every pair of thick-rimmed specs in Soho. But some say that within pockets of adland, the infatuation has moved beyond the cosmetic, and that creative agencies are embracing the coders’ collaborative spirit.

Agencies have always been good at working together to head off a mutual threat. It was the unions in the 70s and procurement is the enemy now. But some agencies – mostly digital ones – argue that this latest shift is cultural, and not just a temporary ceasefire.

Of course, there are plenty who call this wishful thinking. Advertising is a collegiate (some would say incestuous) business, but it is also one of the most fragmented industries out there. The UK’s dominant agencies would be lucky to find themselves with a market share higher than 5 per cent. This, combined with the industry’s almost non-existent barriers to entry, tends to create a shark tank, not a sand pit.

"I don’t see any new spirit of co-operation among agencies," Neil Christie, the Wieden & Kennedy London managing director, says. "It’s a dog-eat-dog business and we are all fighting for the best talent and the best clients. We may admire and respect our rivals but we don’t necessarily trust them. We collaborate on shared business for shared benefit, of course. But this is generally done in the same wary manner as the meeting of the Five Families in The Godfather."

But it may not be as cut-and-dried as that for everybody. Here, four senior industry figures offer their views on the question of whether agencies have softened their competitive edge.

Martin Brooks, chief executive, Work ClubMartin Brooks, chief executive, Work Club

Only ten years ago, if you stalked the streets of Soho, you would be guaranteed to spot the Big Six of adland, locking horns in mortal combat, treading on each others’ faces to win business. Now you see their successors playing nicely in Google sandboxes, sharing smoothies and (most surprisingly) praising their competitors’ work. Have they gone soft? Where’s the aggression? What’s that all about? And is the digital/tech culture to blame? Maybe.

Digital agencies have spent the past 15 years meeting, sharing and drinking together, bonded by a common sense that they are stronger together, rather than squabbling with each other. And with good reason – being frequently sidelined and often misunderstood by their superiors left the digital diaspora feeling closer to their mates in competitor agencies than to their own bosses.

Creative Social is perhaps the best example – a jewel of cross-agency collaboration that sees hundreds of digital practitioners meeting in various parts of the world. This spirit has previously been led by the creative, design and tech elements of digital, motivated by the craft more than the cash, but now seems to be infecting the broader industry. A generational shift has meant that the past five years of adland recruits are more likely to be natural sharers, but this doesn’t explain the softer conversion of the industry’s senior shapers.

I’m with the Mayor of Istanbul in blaming Twitter for this disgrace. Agency leaders find themselves able to simultaneously join Twitter and show their love and passion for other agencies’ work while building their personal profile. Much of adland finds itself obliged to talk about digital/social/mobile in interesting ways, but lacks its own case studies or credentials to bring it to life. So they have to borrow some from SXSW and various other digital fleshpots – places so imbued in collaboration and celebration that it just rubs off when they get back home.

I counted 13 retweets from C-level adlanders of Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s Marmite "Maggie" ad in the first three hours – that couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. This is emphatically a good thing.

Ian Pearman, chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDOIan Pearman, chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

It’s always on a case-by-case basis. The broad determiners of whether agencies will work together are culture and aligned incentives. Unless agencies have a common incentive to work together, they won’t, and that is all to do with the clients. Some clients incentivise competition, and some incentivise collaboration.

Left alone, agencies are competitive beasts, but they can rein that in when it is in their interest to do so. In a sense, it was easier to do this in the past because the disciplines were more distinct. If you created a Venn diagram of what agencies do now, there would be more overlaps than there ever has been. Are individuals within the industry softening in terms of competition?

No, I don’t think so. There are some individuals who are good at this; spokespeople who are very agnostic in their praise for another agency’s work, but, for every one of these, there are ten others who are very partisan in their praise. I certainly don’t think that there has been any sudden shift in human nature. In fact, it’s probably getting more competitive. Media agencies are hiring executive creative directors and there is always a new front in the war.

Last year, it was social. This year, it’s content. And next year, it will be media planning. We are constantly eating each other. But, as an adjunct, it is fair to say that agencies have never needed production companies more than now. To do the work, agencies need four or five sets of specialists to make their stuff brilliant. They need tech partners, website builders, creative technologists, events planners. So, clearly, there is more collaboration at that level.

Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief strategy officer, McCann LondonZaid Al-Zaidy, chief strategy officer, McCann London

I think that agencies these days are more open and collaborative than they have ever been, and perhaps for several reasons. At McCann London, for instance, we have lots of tech talent already working here, which makes the shop floor feel inherently "new school", more open and lacking in secrecy – especially when it comes to sharing and developing ideas.

Maybe it helps that agencies have been freed from the old, media-based remuneration models that might have forced them into a more traditional way of working. And maybe it helps that modern-day culture is so peer-to-peer-dominated that the best ideas are not totally locked down by brands any more and, instead, have the greatest pull when they are made to be played with.

Jason Goodman, chief executive, AlbionJason Goodman, chief executive, Albion

I definitely think that agencies are becoming more collaborative. We helped Poke, which is a part of Mother, out on a pitch recently when it was making videos of businesses in its area. There is definitely a supportive culture among agencies.

We are often competitors but we don’t let that get ahead of us. This is particularly the case in the tech start-up scene in London’s East End. When start-ups are first getting their products out, they need guidance and they tend to help each other build momentum, and some of those behaviours have rubbed off on digitally savvy shops.

That said, if you look at the tech world, there is massive competition between companies that have already built momentum. It’s just written in the way big tech companies work, because they have got something to protect and they’re fearsome in the way that they do it. You can’t be too naïve about this – tech companies can make the big ad agencies look like pussies.