The World: World Leaders - It is time for adland to fight back and join a modern age

In the latest in Campaign's series on adland's global chiefs, Simon Sherwood of Bartle Bogle Hegarty says planning and creative must be updated for a new age.

Who'd want to be in advertising? Our industry is undervalued. We've moved from the top table to being purchased alongside paperclips and printer paper. We've been marginalised by clients. Our audience is harder than ever to talk to. The future's bleak. Well, you can take that view if you want to but in order to get up in the morning, you might favour the other side of the story.

This is an exciting time to be in the business, there is opportunity everywhere, smart people and organisations can gain advantage as our industry goes through a long overdue shake-out. There is a real upside in this severe downturn and if you grab it, our industry might just come through the other side much better off.

The benefit of a global view is that it balances the bad news with the good. The depressed state of the communications business in Europe and North America is most certainly not evident in other parts of the world. There is real positivity and optimism in Asia and Latin America, great work emerging from agencies in Brazil and India, and real innovation to be found in markets such as China. My regular visits to those regions always fill me with renewed vigour. For most global FMCG clients, this is where all the growth is due to come from, so there's good reason to be positive.

What we're seeing in Europe and North America is a decline in the importance of the old model of advertising development. Apart from the absence of the drinks cabinet, not much has changed since the days of Mad Men and it's high time it did. We've spent too long admiring ourselves and our work when we should have been giving our clients real leadership in understanding how to engage with consumers in this modern world.

Now is the time to step up and reassert the value we can create for clients and their brands. It's going to take some doing because, as an industry, we're not in a strong position to fight back. We've lost our confidence in the face of procurement, preview, prevarication and process. But fightback we must; it's that or a slow and painful death.

The fightback starts with a real understanding of what we did that clients found so valuable. And the twin engines that drove the business so powerfully for decades are the ones that still lie at the heart of the industry: strategy and execution. The thing is, agencies (and I obviously include ourselves in this) are only now waking up to the fact that along with everything else, these core skills need to be updated and reinvented for the modern age. Strategy or planning can no longer just be about consumer understanding and insight. Alongside these competencies needs to sit a deeper understanding of the commercial context and the channel landscape. But, above all, there needs to be a wholehearted commitment to data and analytics.

Data literacy has almost disappeared from a planner's armoury; rarely these days do you see a compelling case being argued, or a problem solved, through the magic of numbers. As someone once said, "there's money in complexity", so understanding data and putting it at the heart of our strategic competence is a positive return to a higher position in the value chain.

The other of these twin engines (but let's be clear, if this was a single-engined vehicle, this would be it) is execution, or what we call the creative department. These words seem a little outdated; a separate department populated by "creatives" is not a modern thought, and barely exists in many agencies outside London. If we look at the way communication works now, it must seem odd to an outsider that the twin components of a creative team are called an "art director" and a "copywriter", particularly as these craft skills have all but vanished.

A more relevant set of skills to compete as an agency in this digital age would be a designer, writer and, critically, a "technologist".

So much of what we admire is enabled by technology (from Fiat's eco:Drive to the Philips "carousel" interactive Cannes winner and even to the election of a president), so knowing what's possible is an essential part of the mix.

But it doesn't stop with putting data at the heart of strategy and technology in the creative mix. Creating more value for our clients means we have to learn to work faster and cheaper. Agency processes look prehistoric to people who join from digital agencies, and against a client business model of improving product quality and at the same time taking cost out, our fee-based compensation arrangements work in the opposite way. Until we align our remuneration with the business objectives of our clients, we will remain a target for procurement.

So, the mature adworld should be adding new skills, working differently and getting paid for success. But if we want to be truly modern, we have to step outside our comfort zone. Historically, agencies have built walls around client relationships and have been protective and paranoid about the output.

These walls will have to come down ... We live in an open, collaborative world in which the idea of the ad agency having lead status because it is the agency is no longer valid. As the chief executive of a successful digital agency said to me, "just get over it, there's plenty of work for all of us", and he's right.

We've got lots of work to do to future-proof this industry but there remains one element that gets passed from generation to generation and will always be relevant. Creativity. It's still the most effective way of selling products, changing behaviour and leapfrogging obstructions to success. Clients know that. Its power has not changed; it's just the way we get it and then distribute it that needs to.

- Simon Sherwood is the worldwide chief executive of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

THE FUTURE ACCORDING TO 'SHERWOOD'S LAW'

- Is there only one viable creative network model going forward?

In the future, this debate will move from "the extent of an agency's network" to "the extent to which an agency is networked". It's impossible for one organisation to do it all, so the challenge will be about how best a company can marshal partners and connect with others to get a job done.

- Is the world becoming more uniform in its approach to advertising?

Not at all. There is massive diversity in advertising across the world with some markets being 25 years behind others, but expected to catch up within five. There are product categories where communication is predominantly TV/broadcast-driven in some parts of the world, and search/direct-driven in others. Differences in consumer behaviour, culture and technology mean there is still diversity.

- What are your three biggest challenges over the next three years?

1. Ensuring that creativity remains the driving force within the business.

2. Reinventing BBH so it's not only an agent within fee-based relationships, but also a principal in partnership relationships, and building our own intellectual property.

3. Making the business fun and rewarding for those who work within it.

- What advice would you give to someone who aspires to a job like yours?

Work in markets other than the UK. Keep abreast of technology and keep an open mind on how future talent might want to engage with companies.

Topics