It's time for ad agencies to walk taller in 2017, says Lucky Generals' Calcraft
A view from Helen Calcraft

It's time for ad agencies to walk taller in 2017, says Lucky Generals' Calcraft

It's time for our industry to walk taller. Embrace the uncertainty and tackle it with imagination and determination, Helen Calcraft advises.

For many, 2016 was a year to forget. It began with losing Bowie, then brought us Brexit, before treating us to Trump. Closer to home, industry conversations seemed to revolve around diversity scandals, day-to-day grievances and existential threats. Meanwhile, surveys reported that agency/client relations were at an all-time low.

If all that wasn’t enough, some pundits say there’s worse to come: with political uncertainty, low productivity and sluggish growth, they talk of another global recession in 2017. So maybe we should just pack our bags, stockpile canned goods and head for the hills? Close our cottage industry down before it gets taken over by robots, ad-blockers and in-house teams?

Nah. 

I’m an optimist. I love my job. I love this industry. I believe in the human drive to overcome adversity. I believe that all we have to do is embrace uncertainty (rather than fear it) and handle it with imagination and determination. 

So let me offer my humble thoughts on how we can all make 2017 one to remember for all the right reasons. 

First things first: there has never been a better time to be in this industry. More than ever, businesses depend on creativity to gain an advantage. More than ever, they need an external perspective to provide this edge. More than ever, they don’t care where this spark comes from. The old rules of agency size, age and discipline matter less and the new requirements of talent, hunger and agility count for more. So don’t let anyone tell you that the market is oversupplied or that the industry is doomed. There will always be room for good people and 2017 will be great for anybody who does the following…

Hire differently

Diversity was the big talking point of 2016. For all the acrimony, this was a good thing: for too long, the whole issue (or, actually, issues – because the challenges facing women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, LGBTs, working-class kids and older workers are patently different) was taboo. But sympathetic words will only get us so far. In my darker days, I feel that many are talking about the issues to be seen to be talking and hoping this will suffice. There is surely no longer any debate that the industry needs greater diversity to remain in touch with the outside world. This year must be all about turning talk into action and the winners will be those who say less and do more, quicker. Talking of which…

Do more, quicker

In previous years, this maxim might have been cited as an unreasonable client demand. But, in 2017, it should be embraced. These days, good agencies are prolific producers of great work. They have a bias for action. They realise that, even if practice doesn’t make perfect, it does make progress. And they understand that quantity isn’t necessarily the enemy of quality: in fact, sometimes you need a lot of experiments before you can create something amazing. So, this year, take a gulp of strong coffee and think about how you can crank up your conveyor belt. Start with your slowest account and get stuff done.

Get smarter

One thing that can slow agency processes down is poorly designed research. And 2016 wasn’t a great year for pollsters. So perhaps this is a good time to reflect on how we can get smarter at getting smarter. Years after "big data" became a thing, too many marketers still focus on the tiniest details of advertising execution at the expense of genuine insight. We need to switch the emphasis so that we have a much better understanding of our customers’ dreams and behaviours – and less feedback on their art directional leanings. To borrow from one of the founding fathers of planning, 2017 will belong to the "grand strategists", not the "ad tweakers".

Gang up

If all this sounds like hard work, the good news is that you won’t need to tackle it on your own. All across the industry, agencies big and small are exploring new partnerships and ways of working. To name a few recent examples: Karmarama has sold to Accenture; Omnicom has set up an agency to handle McDonald’s; WPP has partnered Snapchat and Vice Media; and we’ve created Lucky Enterprises to build a group of like-minded entrepreneurs. All these different moves reflect a common truth: that the future is uncertain and having some smart friends around you helps.

Pitch less

Another piece of good news is that we’ll all be pitching less this year. "Wait a minute," I hear you cry. "Surely this is yet another nail in adland’s coffin?" Don’t get me wrong – as a former new-business gal, I love the smell of late-night pizza as much as the next person. But the natural decline of the full-blown pitch is a huge opportunity in that it will allow us to build stronger relationships with existing clients, expand our offerings and deliver braver work. Then, when a really great new opportunity comes along, we’ll be able to go after it at full throttle. That’s the model we’ll be pursuing in 2017, so you will be less likely to bump into us in a marketing department reception from now on (but if you do, watch out as we will be on a mission!).

Fear nothing

Finally, there’s the F-word. Last year seemed to be dominated by worries, from the terrors of artificial intelligence to the threats posed by procurement, digital fraudsters and others.

Now, there’s no getting away from the fact that some of these carry major challenges for our industry. But they are disproportionately problematic for those who are behaving robotically, lazily, unimaginatively or dishonestly. For everyone else, the increased scrutiny on these areas represents an opportunity. And it’s time for this industry to walk taller and bring our A game. 

The year ahead is going to be ace and it sure won’t be dull. So come on. It’s time to get our lipstick on and walk into 2017 like we mean it. 

Andy and Danny – I don’t mean that last bit literally.

Helen Calcraft is a founder of Lucky Generals

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