Time has come for a new breed of independents
A view from Andrew Stephens

Time has come for a new breed of independents

It has been coming for a while now but things are changing - and changing for the better.

There are tangible signs that the time of independent media agencies is here (again). Barely a pitch goes by (OK, Tesco is an exception) when an indie isn’t on the list and, increasingly, winning against the better-resourced network agencies. Campaign’s new-business table provides evidence if it were needed.

But didn’t everyone say all the business would flood into the networks? Didn’t everyone say independents would struggle to compete? Maybe it was the same doom merchants who said the 30-second spot was dead.

It would be too easy, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate, to echo the sentiments of KPMG et al to say that clients’ trust in large media agencies has waned.

I think it has more to do with a perfect storm of business confidence, a recovering economy, independents staying the course and clients that are increasingly questioning what service, value and output benefits they actually get from agency deals at network groups.

Didn’t everyone say all the business would flood into the networks? That independents would struggle?

As confidence returns, chief executives can focus less on cost-cutting initiatives and risk mitigation and optimistically plan for growth instead. They will look for partners that can still deliver the safety of the big networks (large insight pools and competitive buying) but will also provide entrepreneurial spirit. Whether this is coming up with amazing consumer-facing ideas and/or more refreshing ways to trade with media owners, clients are essentially looking for "safe sex".

And it’s our prediction that many more clients will want to get in on the action and with that comes a big opportunity for media agencies to innovate again.

But who are best-placed to take advantage of this new wave of interest in independents? I’m not sure we will see another totally independent agency but I think we will see more agencies ape Goodstuff Communications’ arrangement (we run our own independent agency with a minority interest from Omnicom Media Group).

We’ve seen it recently on the creative side of the fence with 18 Feet & Rising, so where and when will it happen in media? Will MediaCom look to cement its number-one status and invest in satellite agencies? Will Havas try to extend its agency portfolio beyond three brands? Will Creston move into media? Or – to quote Julian Boulding at Thenetworkone: "Media tech is where a lot of the action is right now" – will we see a company like MediaMath reach out with a data-centric approach?

Either way, as the world returns to some growth, there is huge opportunity for a new breed of media agencies, probably with a minority backing.

Andrew Stephens is a founding partner at Goodstuff Communications