We don't shrug our shoulders at scale-ups – we’ve been embracing them for years
A view from Paul Hutchison

We don't shrug our shoulders at scale-ups – we’ve been embracing them for years

The 'network agencies are becoming obsolete' narrative is getting old, the UK boss of Wavemaker says.

Given many businesses' pandemic-powered need to pivot, agencies of all shapes and sizes have been forced to work faster and more flexibly than ever to understand what clients want.

In this context, it's no surprise that many independents are claiming agility as their USP while decrying the networks as slow, bloated or even dying. Independent agencies argue it's this traditional consolidated model that will lead clients with small-to-medium budgets to feel shut out by the process. While independents – perhaps conveniently – will find their services increasingly in demand from said clients.

To this effect, according to one of the most recent attacks on networks, we shrug our shoulders at small or scale-up clients. We're too billings obsessed, too trapped in tradition to adapt to their needs. When, actually, many network agencies, including Wavemaker, have been supporting scale-ups and fast-growth clients for years.

The journey from launch to take-off business typically takes four years. The journey from take-off to mature business takes a further three to five years. Only 25% of these companies make it 15 years or more.

In other words, take-off is a pivotal stage in the development of business maturity, and it's the stage where the greatest number of challenges surface. As a result, a media partner must have agility, yes, but deep category expertise and broad capabilities are also crucial to success.

Wavemaker Select, our specialist function for take-off businesses ready to scale, adapts alongside fast-growth clients to support them on their journey to maturity. They are trusted by a host of scale-up brands.

The reason for their success is simple: scale-ups are all about growth. That is the North Star, their driving force, and their priority. At Wavemaker, we're experts in positively provoking growth for our clients, so we know that growth is rarely linear. But the problem with niche players is that they generally have an in-depth understanding of a specific, limited area.

Only an agency that is truly media neutral can look beyond the discipline at what business challenges a client is facing to offer genuine provocations for growth – rather than focusing on what digital marketing can do for them, for instance. Clearly, a mobile marketing agency will develop an exciting mobile strategy, but what if mobile isn't the best way for a certain business to achieve its goals?

Rather than focusing on just one industry segment, scale-ups need an agency with broad discipline expertise and experience supporting clients across a wide range of industries, providing a broader and, therefore, more comprehensive understanding of the landscape as a whole. Particularly at the early stages of growth, there is no such thing as a perfect recipe. Rapid experiments across marketing channels and a never-ending circle of testing and learning is required to identify the most effective, efficient ways to grow a business.

Consider Airbnb. Now a scale-up success story, it experimented a lot before discovering its optimum growth hacks, distributing flyers and going door-to-door. Ultimately, though, one of the tactics that helped it grow significantly was reverse-engineering its way into Craigslist. This meant that any person who created a publication on Airbnb would be able to cross-post their listings to Craigslist, giving them access to a vast user base that already existed.

As in the case of Airbnb, some of the most interesting ways for scale-ups to grow aren't through traditional media. For example, when working with the wine preservation system scale-up Coravin, Wavemaker Select found broadcast channels too expensive and untargeted for its launch campaign. Instead, Coravin was launched to an engaged wine drinking audience using the addressable TV buying ecosystem, Finecast. The result was a 33% uplift in online sales and a 46% increase in new sales from search.

Scale-ups operate in a high-risk, dog-eat-dog world. They're highly accountable and addressable to their investors, meaning they need to make money quickly. This means that every penny of marketing investment has to work as hard as it possibly can. Not only does Wavemaker Select have the power to leverage the talent, tools and buying power of Wavemaker, Group M and WPP to offer pricing an independent could only dream of, but having access to this level of scale and profitability also allows us to build flexible contracts that benefit the scale-up mentality. A retainer model isn't necessary. Instead, bespoke contracts and payment structures are built in tune with the business and its cash flow. In fact, businesses like Wavemaker turn enough profit that they can even foot the bill for a few months to support growth in the short term, in order to gain significant growth in the long term.

Moreover, network agencies can offer lean and agile processes rooted in deep expertise of the customer journey in every category. And, perhaps most crucially, this knowledge is supported with actionable insights from the most valuable commodity to a scale-up: world-leading data.

Wavemaker has built a global operating system housing its modular planning product, Provocative Planning, from the ground up. Fuelled by the world's most powerful consumer decision-making data, the end-to-end tool helps cut through the complexity of media planning across many fragmented audiences to optimise a return on a clients' media investments. The result is planning at a granular customer level, with the power to simultaneously explore multiple audiences across many attributes and assess the best media partners to create an optimised campaign across channels and market in record time. Independent agencies, in the majority of cases, just don't have access to this level of detailed insight and analysis.

The age-old "network agencies are becoming obsolete" narrative is getting just that, old. Our proposition isn't built around impressing clients with the number of offices we have around the globe. It's about having the ability to pull together the best creative talent and industry-leading resources from that network in a way that can genuinely drive exceptional growth for our clients – big and small. We're far from shrugging our shoulders at smaller clients. I'd venture that, arguably, we're servicing them better than most. 

Paul Hutchison is chief executive of Wavemaker