The photograph on the front cover of the Campaign School Reports issue was revealing in itself. It showed an industry that is dominated by leaders who have all pretty much grown up in the same school, coming through an advertising system that continues to promote from within – rather than outside – its comfort zone.
Several of the top 10 agencies were represented in the image by people who have long been in the industry, either at the same agency or in a succession of similar jobs. That has to change, because this is a sector experiencing well-documented structural upheaval and, in order to make itself future-fit, it must broaden its horizons.
We’ve seen this already in the music, TV and press sectors, where online distribution of content has shaken up things to a disorienting degree. Now it’s happening to advertising. The democratisation and, indeed, commoditisation of media has changed the game completely.
That makes the case for a big shift in mindset even more compelling. Many agencies have been arrogant in delivering much the same services and output for clients for the past decade while, to a large extent, ignoring the changes happening around them. Longer-term strategic thinking is urgently needed and that includes investment in new skillsets without expecting overnight returns.
Most importantly, agencies need to rethink the skillset required at the top of their companies. The agency of the future will have a broader base and courageous leaders will have torn down silos, opened the borders and welcomed diversity not only in terms of gender, ethnicity, social class and physical ability, but also in terms of experience in events, TV production, social platforms, data analytics, technology and digital media.
In order to achieve this, the industry must find fresh talent with a new perspective. I’m not saying that you have to look too far afield – it takes more than a turn as a reality TV star or comedy actor to qualify you as a leader in advertising – but bringing in some of the skills and contacts developed in parallel industries can help the business move forward and break free of silos.
These qualities are especially to be found in the TV production sector – David Abraham, founder of Wonderhood Studios and former chief executive of Channel 4, has flipped between TV and advertising, and has now landed in the middle; Chaka Sobhani moved from ITV Creative to Mother and then to Leo Burnett; and Sanjay Nazerali moved from BBC News to global chief strategy officer at Dentsu Aegis Network.
Innovative, smaller, younger companies entering the agency sector are experiencing success due to a flexible approach that's more reflective of the studio production model than that of the traditional ad agency. Just look at Gravity Road’s collaboration with Three, Uncommon Creative Studio’s recent ITV campaign or the documentaries created by The Wild, Jungle Creations’ agency, for The National Lottery. The more savvy media agencies are also embracing this approach. As we’ve seen with Bountiful Cow’s award-winning work on the partnership between The Sun and Movember (pictured), as well as MediaCom’s involvement in developing Channel 4’s Extreme Everest documentary in association with Berocca.
This evolution is not confined to the youngest in the industry. Some of the older players understand that a different approach is needed. Ignore what Sir Martin Sorrell is doing at your peril – he has jumped off the hard-to-turn ocean liner of the traditional ad industry into a rigid-hulled inflatable boat in the shape of S4 Capital. Just last month, S4’s MediaMonks acquired Caramel Pictures, providing it with a foothold in food-and-drink content production and proving that the future of advertising has to be about excellence in content development and creation, combined with being nimble and "always on". It was almost poignant that, on the same day, WPP North America – beset by client losses and preoccupied with restructuring and the merging of behemoth agencies to create Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R – reported a significant revenue reverse.
These events only emphasise the necessity of being alive to the possibility of change and adopting a more open-minded approach in terms of looking towards aligned industries for talent that will enable agencies to broaden their skillsets.
Parallel industries have already been forced to radically adapt their business models almost overnight and, because the ad industry is faced with similar issues, the time for prevarication is over. It must find a new content model to survive and broaden its talent pool in order to deliver this. And that means looking at new talent pools beyond those traditional advertising pupils so vividly captured in Campaign’s image.
Sally Quick is partner at Mission Bay and has previously held senior roles at Channel 4, ITV and UKTV