World's Leading Independent Agencies: MBA

As agency disciplines and client needs continue to evolve, a binary approach is less effective than ever. What's the answer?

Maher (second from right): “How do we meet the clients’ demand of ‘better, faster and cheaper’? The solution is not binary; we need an ‘and’, not an ‘or’, answer.”
Maher (second from right): “How do we meet the clients’ demand of ‘better, faster and cheaper’? The solution is not binary; we need an ‘and’, not an ‘or’, answer.”

What better analogy for the current perceived state of the agency landscape by some observers than the ending of the classic 1969 movie The Italian Job. Balanced precariously on a cliff edge, Michael Caine and his crew seem destined to perish in pursuit of the gold. Apparently, he has a great idea that will save both the bounty and its hunters; all their exquisitely made plans surely can’t fail? 

Yes, some may argue that ‘the bombs’ of an urgent demand for accountability and transparency, of questions around trust, of the inexorable march of technology, and of the tech platforms working directly with brands are in danger of doing more than just "blow the bloody doors off !" 

But it is nothing new to be in a state of flux. Nothing changes; everything changes. Disruption is the new normal. The future is far from clear. Yet some appear to have crystal-clear, binary, visions. Long or short? In-house or outsourced? Binary answers are an inexcusably simplistic standpoint. Different contexts demand different approaches. Most of the binaries offered are right some of the time – none are right all the time. 

How, then, do we meet the clients’ demand of the elusive trifecta of ‘better, faster and cheaper’ without fobbing off their demands with "pick two"? The solution is not binary; we need an ‘and’, not an ‘or’, answer. 

In MBA’s view, the key to the solution, and therefore to the future prosperity of agencies, is our continued belief in the resolution of the apparently binary "creativity vs technology/data" conundrum. Without any compromise, agencies need to deliver both the emotive power and beauty of creativity (in all its various guises) and the skills to exploit the wonderful opportunities offered by technology/data (in all their various guises). But does the industry have the complete answer to this thorny problem yet? 

The in-housing trend is big. This is both clients hiring skills directly and agency-provided solutions. Several notable examples have met with great success. However, the question remains as to whether this model gives clients the true superiority of strategic and creative thinking that they can achieve with outsourcing. Can it attract and retain prodigious talent without offering the right cultural environment and abundance of variety? 

The management and tech consultancy groups are moving in as well. But applying methodical, process-driven cultures to the more agile and often iconoclastic world of creative and media agencies is, not surprisingly, challenging. 

The agency groups are evolving, too; but can they move fast enough to stay competitive? Can the newer groups retain their agility as they grow, or will the new breed of creatively focused boutiques steal their gold before they can get to the other end of the bus? 

We would contest that there are three key requirements that must be resolved to fight off the binary, and less effective, approaches: 

1. The heart must truly embrace technology and data – on an equal footing. It is no longer enough to put people into silos as seemingly incompatible species. Change is good – we must embrace it. 

2. The culture must prize creativity. As we know, creativity is much more than the creative work. Creativity is strategy, insight, brilliant media and comms planning. It is a friend to challenge and disruption. Creativity should pulse through every aspect of an agency’s work with the fostering of the right culture for creativity to thrive, to conjure non-linear thinking and to retain our edge. 

3. The environment must be talent first – inculcating a spirit of the entrepreneurial and the collective. We must always consider how we give our key and diverse assets – our people – the right tools and the expansive mental and physical space to thrive. Ways of working have changed forever with the gig economy and the freedom of location and time that technology has provided. People should be working together because they want to, all with a common sense of purpose and the sufficient agility to deliver. 

It would appear the future is not any of the binary choices often presented. It is more likely a compelling blend of ‘techno creativity’ in all its complexity and messiness. This means the future lies with those who wish to conquer this apparent conundrum and deliver the strength of creativity combined with the acumen and agility required to fully embrace technology and data – in deeds as well as in words. "Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea…"

At a glance... 

Founded 1994
Principles Stephen Maher, CEO; Jack Gallon, creative director; James Devon, strategy director; James Middlehurst, managing partner; Megan Hallinan, head of PR and social
Staff 40
Location London


What’s the best work you’ve seen in the past 12 months? 
Nike featuring Colin Kaepernick. Bravery with a scoop of bravery on top.

What’s the best application of Voice you’ve heard?
Chompers – an Alexa Skill to help children brush their teeth properly. 

What will make the biggest impact on your agency this year? 
The continued, and most welcome, deepening of the interrelation between creativity and technology/data. 

How can agencies keep great people?
Give great people the mental and physical space, as well as the right tools, to be great.

Stephen Maher is CEO at MBA