Sorrell and Harris lead calls to reimagine advertising

Industry leaders reframe the independent agency imperative at Worldwide Partners’ global summit

What happens when you take a group of successful people with very diverse backgrounds – from a DJ/brand consultant to a human potential expert, along with Sir Martin Sorrell himself  – and ask them to reimagine the ad industry?

That was the backdrop for the Worldwide Partners (WPI) global summit, a virtual gathering of the independent network’s member agencies last week. 

It’s a timely moment to ask. As Sir Martin, chairman of S4 Capital, told delegates, in an interview with Campaign UK editor-in-chief Gideon Spanier (featured above): “Clients are hell bent on significant change, and the holding companies are paralysed by their structure. They talk about simplification, but I don’t think they have simplified anything.

“In a digital world, smaller is an advantage because you don’t need a heft anymore. It’s brain over brawn,” Sorrell said. “It’s not showing muscle to major media platforms; it’s going to them with good ideas. Independents are doing a bloody good job globally. They want to demonstrate that they can do this at a significant scale.”

John Harris (pictured right), CEO of WPI, believes the pandemic made adaptive capability the principal independent agency advantage. He argues that advertising’s future depends on independents putting the industry on a new footing.

“Over the last year, independent agencies answered the call by demonstrating our adaptability, capability and most importantly, our humanity,” said Harris. “Now we’re looking at what we don’t know to discover opportunities to make advertising more purposeful, powerful and sustainable.”

At the end of the three-day summit, Harris identified three broad imperatives for agencies and brands that arose – purpose, diversity and creativity.

None are new but Harris believes it’s now becoming apparent just how they are going to change the industry – by driving businesses to reimagine growth beyond the current trend for cost cutting to meet corporate KPIs.

The need for diversity is paramount. As marginalised communities campaign for long-awaited equality in the world and workplace, business and governmental leaders increasingly see inclusion as the key to the global economy and society operating at full power. 

“Today, there is an increasingly pervasive call for companies to become more diverse, inclusive, adaptive and collaborative,” Ozioma Egwuonwu, founder of BurnBright International, told WPI summit delegates. “It’s time to answer the call.”

Even as the industry responds, Harris believes that what is emerging is the realisation that representation is just a starting point. “Real growth requires that we harness and then unleash the collective culture, skills and thought that come with representing all orientations – and allow our organisations to be reimagined in the process.”

A similar theme emerged around the role of purpose in commerce. “Saving the world, although a powerful aspiration, is not something employees and customers can relate to on a daily basis,” Niall Cluley, managing director of WPI agency Dragonfish, told summit viewers. “Purpose must be operationalised. It must be embedded into your organisation and measured over the long term, not just the short term.”

And how will a focus on creativity lead the business world to reimagine growth?  

Harris’s take is that clients are increasingly relying on agencies to apply creative thinking to business problems, not just communication problems. And so, to meet this challenge, there will be a shift from focusing merely on the capabilities of technology and data to look more concertedly at their use in creativity.

As Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester, said at the summit: “[There is a need to] place emotion in the code to digitally express the values of the brand to meet the emotional needs of consumers.” 

Fletcher Whitwell, chief media & publishing officer of WPI agency R&R Partners in the US and WPI board chair added, “The opportunity lies in our ability to leverage creativity and technology to transition from simply personalised marketing to personal marketing.” 

And, by reimagining growth, summit delegates heard about the most radical change imaginable: a world in which chasing profits isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of business – something Natalie Graeme, founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, brought up in her session.

“It’s harder to be constantly trying to reinvent, but it’s taking us to a different place,” said Graeme, in discussion with Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrot. “It’s not all about money. It’s not all about growing at all costs.” And, as DJ/entrepreneur MICK told Campaign Asia’s deputy editor Jessica Goodfellow: it’s all about finding those powerful points of connection with people.

If what these thinkers are anticipating comes to pass, the industry is on the verge of changes that are far more radical than even the past two decades of digital disruption. 

Harris believes the predicted changes are validation of WPI’s faith in its network model - a case of the corporate world catching up with WPI’s ethos of answering every client query with the question, ‘how can we help?’ and not ‘how much money is in it for us?’.

John Harris, CEO of WPI and Fletcher Whitwell, WPI Board Chair

“Worldwide Partners was founded over 80 years ago, but I would put forth that our value proposition for both clients and agencies has never been more relevant,” says Harris.

 “The new advertising currency is collaboration – the orchestration and activation of diverse perspectives, ideas and capabilities. Collaboration, integration and acceleration are the DNA of independent agencies. We’re filling the essential gaps for both clients and agencies through a global, diversified service platform to meet whatever needs clients and agencies encounter, without the friction that occurs within publicly traded holding companies.”