2018 didn’t do much for adland’s optimism. The year ended with news headlines dominated by Brexit paralysis, the slide in global equities and a wider economic slowdown, while adland reeled from the collapse of WPP’s share price and the sudden disappearance of some of its most famous names.
These broader macroeconomic pressures were, of course, not the cause of WPP’s troubles, although they can’t have helped. The marketing ecosystem has been convulsing from a series of disruptions stretching back over a decade – the emergence of a new generation of digital power players that have changed the rules of marketing and commerce; the explosion of formats, channels and touchpoints that has led to increased complexity for clients and agencies alike.
Add in downward cost pressures, a decline in profits, disintermediation, in-housing, insourcing and a surge in short-termism, and it’s easy to understand why agencies were busy merging and purging, with hybrids emerging, each of them eating each other’s breakfast. And don't forget the new competitive threats represented by consultancies.
The truth is that this isn’t an advertising-specific problem – it’s what it means to do business, especially in volatile and uncertain times. Change isn’t new, it’s a constant – although arguably the rate of change has accelerated in recent years.
I do believe, however, that there are some powerful principles that can enable us to manage and even prosper. There are seven in particular:
1 Abandon the fallacy of false opposites (and embrace the power of 'and')
It’s not useful for us to talk about the future of broadcast versus digital, short-form versus long-form or agency versus in-housing – these are not binary choices. I believe in the power of big ideas and always-on ideas, as well as long-term brand-building and short-term activation (and we have decades of IPA Effectiveness data to prove it).
2 The unreasonable power of creativity
Most organisations are predisposed to loss aversion – protecting what they have created – and that goes for agencies too. But now is not the time to preserve historic structures or vested interests. So avoid groupthink, actively promote dissent internally and expose yourselves to as many fresh external stimuli as you can. And when things get tough in the economy, we of all industries should understand the need for big, transformative creative ideas. Arguably in a commoditised market, we should be able to charge a premium for premium work, created by premium talent that shows clear business impact to our clients.
3 Embrace simplicity, speed and agility
In a world of complexity, it pays to simplify. And in a world that favours speed, we need to get hip to it. We need to be more collaborative, diverse and open. This means being less precious about how and where we work – and instead do what it takes to create the best work.
4. Identify real business value
We have to be the people who solve clients’ business problems rather than just executional partners. This means moving from selling inputs (ie units of time) to outputs (not lists of services but "launches", "brand-building", "customer value programmes") and outcomes (sales, share price growth). All of which requires us to be super-sharp about how we define, create and deliver value.
5 Develop a growth mindset
Enjoy the learning process; learn from errors. Every talent you have can be improved. Ultimately, we have to stop running from mistakes, and embrace and industrialise learning. Put simply: if you focus on your own growth, you’ll grow your teams; if your teams grow, your clients will grow – and so will your business.
6 Get good at managing change
Change can be painful and uncomfortable, and we are hardwired to avoid pain. But it’s a fact of life that isn’t going away. So create some simple and powerful new rituals this year to make it less so. I’ve been impressed by Diageo’s attempt to encourage its agencies to be less TV-centric by asking them to start with a powerful idea expressed in culture, then in digital, and finally in broadcast and outdoor. That's the converse of how they might have briefed agencies before.
7 Embrace optimism
Optimists see opportunities; pessimists see risk. A business school professor I know describes the right balance between the two as the "sweet and sour" approach – muscular optimism with a healthy dose of realism. I firmly believe you move towards the things you focus on. Like skiing through trees (as someone once advised me): focus on the gaps between the trees and not the trees themselves.
And that’s how I think we can survive and thrive in 2019 and beyond.
Marc Nohr is chief executive of Fold7 and chairman of the IPA’s Commercial Leadership Group. This is a summary of a speech he delivered last week to the Advertising Producers Association on the commercial prospects for creative agencies in 2019