The World's Leading Independent Agencies: Belgiovane Williams Mackay

Jamie Mackay argues that agencies as well as brands can benefit from a 'challenger' attitude.

If you take the scrum out of the equation, we played well." So said Eddie Jones, the recently sacked coach of our beleaguered Wallabies, in an attempt to defend Australia's seventh loss in a row after the England versus Australia game at Twickenham.

In response, the quintessentially Aussie journalist and broadcaster Mike Carlton said: "If you take the assassination out of the equation, the President and Mrs Kennedy quite enjoyed the drive from Dallas to the airport." It was the only thing that brought a smile to my face after our recent rugby performance.

Besides his inevitable unemployment, what Jones' somewhat ridiculous statement reflects is the fact that many Australians - myself included - had become so convinced of our sporting supremacy that we had started to think with the arrogance of a leader.

Australia had made a fatal error. We had cast aside our true values.

We stopped thinking like the lean, mean "we try harder" Antipodean challenger.

Forget Richard Branson. Forget Apple. Australia is the ultimate challenger brand. And, bugger it, we are better off for it.

We Aussies are known for our healthy disrespect for authority, our habit of calling a spade a spade and our unwavering belief in a fair go for all. Not for pretensions to supremacy.

Unless we feel somehow wronged, somehow misplaced, it is hard to get an Aussie off the beach. Let alone passionate about something. We need a cause, an enemy - our own jihad - or where's the fun and challenge?

When Australia achieves in the sporting arena (and I'm not including what the Poms call football), our success, often in the face of more talented teams, is usually driven by that special Aussie passion ignited when we are the underdog and unranked outsider.

When we founded Belgiovane Williams Mackay, we were fuelled by that same passion - seeking to fulfil our shared dream to break free from the "yes, sir, three bags full, sir" mentality that characterised (and still does) many traditional multinational agencies. We wanted to challenge the arrogant leaders.

We realised that being an independent, especially in a market such as Australia, gave us more permission to champion challenger brands and, in so doing, to turn the conventions of the advertising "category" on its head.

The reality of many of our clients such as TDK versus Sony, Alfa Romeo versus BMW, Virgin Money versus the big four Australian banks, is that they must challenge or be challenged. The same rings true for an independent agency. We believe that "if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got".

To change the status quo takes courage. For an independent, that courage needs to permeate every aspect of the agency, from the business model to staff recruitment and training, from strategic and creative processes to client selection and relationship management.

Challenge is truly our culture. It lives and breathes beyond the founding partnership and fuels and inspires the total BWM brand experience.

The traditional advertising model is increasingly threatened by a trend towards commodity pricing as procurement departments seek to apply a one-size-fits-all methodology to agency remuneration. This is compounded by many agencies' inability to differentiate themselves in clients' eyes: let's face it, these days, who isn't creative, strategic and integrated?

The advertising agency category life-cycle is in decline and, as is typical of this stage, there is significant downward pressure on margins and a shake-out of non-profitable competitors. Within this difficult environment, it takes a committed challenger agency to defend its premium pricing by delivering a high-touch, high-quality, highly differentiated service and product.

Our greatest challenge is to recruit, train and develop talent that is creative in a non-traditional way. This requires rethinking conventional models of media, production, teaming and speed to market.

A foundation principle to this approach is the recognition that the source of traditional advertising creative - the writer/art director model - is no longer the only way to staff a creative department.

In fact, as our focus has moved away from ad-centric outcomes towards idea-centric ones, we have found that the more eclectic our creative department's talent, the higher the level of creative challenge achieved.

Today, our creative department is staffed with musicians, internet programmers, designers, sales promotion and direct response specialists, film directors and even a former geologist, as well as advertising art directors and copywriters.

This approach to staffing has naturally led to a breakdown of the traditional team structure, resulting in a more collaborative, free-flowing approach to idea development.

The convention that pervades most agency management philosophies is one that preaches empowerment, but in reality practises a top-down, autocratic system.

The challenge that most independent agencies face is how to continue to harness the vision and drive of the original founders, while fostering an environment that allows senior talent to contribute in a meaningful way.

What tends to happen in growing independent agencies is the egos of the founders impede the potential for the brand to fully "stretch".

To challenge this "natural" control dynamic, we removed ourselves from the day-to-day running of the business, entrusting this to a management board and enabling a more balanced distribution of power and decision-making across all departments.

The partners' focus, in turn, has become one of brand vision and stewardship, team mentoring, product quality, industry reputation and senior client relationship management.

Because we don't see ourselves as competing in the commoditised, mature and saturated category of advertising, we do not share many multinational agencies' increasingly pessimistic outlook on the future.

Instead, we see ourselves in the exciting and new emerging category of "change creators". As long as there are businesses that believe success is derived from challenging the status quo through lateral thinking, we, in turn, will remain relevant and valued.

Long live the feisty mongrels - haven't they always made the most interesting pets anyway?

- Jamie Mackay is the executive planning director at Belgiovane Williams Mackay.

AT A GLANCE

Name: Belgiovane Williams Mackay

Founded: 1996

Principals: Rob Belgiovane, executive creative director; Paul Williams, group chief executive; Jamie Mackay, executive planning director

Staff: 100

Location: Sydney, Australia

Mission statement: CHAlleNGE

Describe your agency in three words: Very opinionated people.

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