What next for independent media agencies?
A view from Andrew Stephens

What next for independent media agencies?

Goodstuff's co-founder shares four ideas for helping independent media agencies compete with the big buying groups.

The changing composition of the UK media agency market is increasingly well documented and embraced by all those who sit outside the large buying groups.

Just take the last three weeks as further proof.

On 12 October in a packed Grosvenor House our agency picked up the coveted Media Week Agency of the Year accolade after just six years in the buying business. This week the latest Nielsen spend data showed that independents have grown by £140M year to date while the network media agencies have declined £145M over the same period. Yes, you read that correctly.

The figures may be hot off the press but they continue the narrative of change that most are now familiar with, so I’m not going to cover old ground again. Instead I’ll share our biggest question: "How can we and the independent agency sector keep this momentum going, while not losing what we’ve built"?

Because while life on our side of the fence is pretty good right now, let’s not kid ourselves or get too carried away – the networks still dominate c.80% of the market and when it comes to scale and depth of resource, they (most at least) are in a league of their own and will be for some time.

So, in trying to answer the above and without giving away the crown jewels, here are some of the options we are kicking around in a proactive manner to grow our business and the wider independent sector.

1. Keep twisting

The very first thing we’re doing is to remind ourselves of what’s helped us get here in the first place which is best summarised by our mission To Be The World’s Most Inventive Media Agency. For us to get anywhere near achieving this we need to learn from the mistakes of the networks, never become complacent or arrogant, and keep being restless. Keep pushing, keep twisting and keep evolving our model as the market needs it, opportunity arises and as networks least expect it. That’s why our leadership team are currently working on 14 different initiatives for 2018 from new business ideas and new products through to making Goodstuff the best place to work in the UK.

2. Back entrepreneurs

Clients are crying out for more independent agencies like Goodstuff and the7stars and the kind of characterful agency leaders that once spearheaded agencies like MGM, BLM, Naked and Walker. As evidence for this beyond pure growth shown above, since January of this year, we alone have turned down 30 new business opportunities.

So, we’re going to grow our business in two primary ways. Firstly, we will aim for sustainable growth within the main agency (organic and new business) and alongside this, we will invest time and capital in helping the next generation of entrepreneurial agency owner/leader.

Just this week we proudly announced our support for the hugely talented Sally Weavers as she launches her new communications planning agency, Craft. A timely answer to those asking for the new Naked.

And as more entrepreneurs like Sally want to jump off the big ship we’ll be there to help and support.

If that’s you, you know where we are …

3. Agency collaboration

As independents compete for larger client business, scale and resources will be an area where the network agencies have a stronger hand. So, in the way front-line network agency "brands" share skills and resources in the background, why shouldn’t independent agencies look to informally explore this model and build our own independent version fit for 2018? It’s very early days and would no doubt be hugely complex and political, but we’ll have some fun seeing what can be done!

4. Enjoy change

We have built a business based on what clients want, not just what we have built and hope to sell on. This makes us fundamentally different to networks who have huge overhead hangovers from building services and tech clients no longer want or trust. So, where clients want to take certain skills in-house we are acting as consultants and advisors and where clients want us to do everything we’re finding interesting ways to deliver more. 

Andrew Stephens is the co-founder of Goodstuff Communications