Why independent shops are more crucial than ever

The7stars' success shows the media marketplace still wants an alternative to the big networks, Jonathan Durden writes.

The7stars: named Agency of the Year at the Media Week Awards
The7stars: named Agency of the Year at the Media Week Awards

I’ve been judging them on and off since 1987 but this year’s Media Week Awards were, in my opinion, particularly special.

The shortlisted work was excellent, the judging process rigorous and the evening spectacular.

But one award really stood out: Agency of the Year going to the7stars.

The significance of this might have been lost amid the excitement on the night. So it is worth emphasising how important it is that an independent beat the global networks.

Without the evidence that it is still possible to start up on your own and thrive, we risk deterring the next generation of talent from being prepared to challenge the business.

Take a look at the websites of MediaCom, ZenithOptimedia, Starcom Mediavest Group or any others in that competitor set. All open with statements about the people being their first priority. PHD, a brand I had a hand in designing, was firmly built on that principle.

Founded in 1990, PHD was the start of a second wave of media independents. Positioned as a solitary salmon swimming against the current of scale, it was a creative alternative to the blunt economies-of-scale argument touted by the big boys. 

About 40 years ago, the first wave of independents were formed by visionary break-away employees who were largely drawn from the full-service agency model.

The extensive list included TMD (The Media Department, now Carat), CIA (now MEC) and John Ayling & Associates, which remains defiantly independent.

All spotted the value in becoming unbiased specialists who could recommend clients on how their money was spent without fear of the creative work dictating a post-rationalised media path. They were the entrepreneurs who changed the world order.

But then, quite quickly, almost all of these independents – be they from the first or second wave – were acquired. Bought by the same global groups that had witnessed the breakaways from their media departments in the first place.

By the time of PHD’s sale to Omnicom, there was a recognition that the power of holding the money gave greater potential for the media discipline to expand. 

Indeed, "meeja" was evolving to become the natural home for most connecting communications and was better-placed to cope with the change than other disciplines. 

Words such as "programmatic", "content", "partnership", "social" and "native" are in the daily vernacular. 

The start-ups of recent years have generally focused on specific disciplines. Many have already been acquired, or were co-funded, to supply the holding groups’ appetite for in-house "clout". 

The7stars stands out as the last independent to have launched as a generalist, ready to take on the might of the usual suspects. When it launched a decade ago, I admit I was dismissive about its prospects. I was wrong, and I bow to its success, strong culture, drive for quality and sheer determination.

More importantly, I celebrate what the agency almost single-handedly now represents. The fact that it has been able to not only compete but regularly beat the vast networks is inspiring. There is real nobility in being the central hub and not being satisfied acting as just another spoke in the wheel.

If you can spot the vacuum that emerges when a market goes in one direction, and can offer another way, then it is all out there for the taking.

Bring on the third wave. I dare you.

Jonathan Durden is a co-founder of PHD

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