The year ahead for ad agencies: time to start with a clean slate

Advertising agencies have an opportunity to reset in 2021. This is the time to explore new models, different ways of working, and additional offerings. But don’t forget to look after your people – without them, agencies are nothing.

The year ahead for ad agencies: time to start with a clean slate

'Creativity is the only way to survive'

By Sheryl Marjoram, chief executive, McCann London

Concepts are powerful things. From birth they’re fed to us as navigational tools. Mum. Scary. Belonging. It’s how we start to shape our character and identity.

They’re powerful things right up until they’re not. We see that with the excitement of innovation and the protest against injustices.

And then came 2020 and all the concepts seemed to be vulnerable all at the same time.

What is safe? Connection? Secure? Private? What is the future? What is the office?

We’re living in a cool zone. A time that is truly uncomfortable to live through but excellent to read about later. A time where chaos gives way to regeneration, reconfiguration and a revitalised way of being.  

While much feels out of our control, we have never had more. Whatever we don’t change now is a conscious choice we will live with. As an industry we couldn’t have better authors to rewrite our future.

The chapters of our new story must include:

The ability to move at the speed of culture. The speed and sheer volume of social and cultural change has made for smarter and more demanding consumers. Our clients have honed their capabilities to engage in real time and we as agencies are providing deep strategy combined with the agility and speed required for transformation. This deep partnership is driving significant and lasting commercial impact far beyond a single campaign.

Creativity is the only way to survive. Creativity is the central force that drives how the world solves problems. We must continue to find ways of unleashing the fullest potential of our talent so we can deliver the best answers to these problems. Today, creative impulses can come from anywhere and the democratisation
of opportunity is fundamentally the shape of our business.

Advertising and activism. There is a moral and commercial imperative here. There has been a power imbalance for centuries. Brands that recognise the platform they have to engage with consumers in a meaningful way, who have a clear and admirable purpose and do the right thing, will win.

Drive your people with “to be” lists, not “to do” lists. Agencies that build around character, culture and values of diversity and inclusivity
will get more done than those who start with a set of deliverables and departments. Ideas are loved into being on the back of committed, connected human energy alone.

Create space to switch off (and get more done). Retail therapy, exercise and pets help keep us happy but the real win is to create a life you don’t want to run away from in the first place. We have all seen external factors come with us to work. Work can exacerbate or relieve those factors but it can never remove them. Agencies that work to give people the time to achieve a sense of value and contentment outside of work will be the ones that see more happy people turning up to work.

Emotional intelligence enables authenticity. I inhabit the same amount of pixels as anyone else on that Microsoft Teams call. The truth is that visibility management, corner offices, foosball and the water coolers – as wonderful as they are – bring potential for distraction and gaming of the system. Now, and without them, we are seeing each other for our true contribution as it stands without props. It’s driving new accountability, transparency and connections, and will make our product better.

As we walk into 2021 we have a genuine opportunity to capture the imaginations of consumers, tell stories with “world-making” efforts and use magic (strengthened by the precision of data) to play a meaningful role in shaping the way we work with each other, what we produce and how we partner our clients. 

Creativity is a formidable tool to have on tap. I look forward to writing the next chapter in our future.

'We're a people industry so we have to protect our most critical assets'

By Karen Martin, chief executive, Bartle Bogle Hegarty London

In March I’d accepted that 2020 was going to be a shitshow of a year but come 2021 we’ll all be grand again. Well, that’s not quite true now, is it? Nevertheless, what we’ve all displayed this year is that we’re incredibly resilient, delusionally optimistic (well, maybe not everyone), fighters, believers and probably closer to each other than ever before. So let’s take all the good things, delete the bad things from memory forever and go running at 2021 by focusing on: 

Our work – in times of recession and adversity, we see this industry produce its finest work. Our industry needs to make work that we love, admire and are jealous of, to give our industry the boost and support it needs. We’ve spent too much time talking about ways of working and not nearly enough about the work.

Flexible working that works – it’s fair to say that we’re not the best at this in our industry and we’ve been forced into it this year. I’ll stand by my belief that we are better together, but we have to accept that it is changing and we need to find a way to make that collective, collaborative spirit the same in and out of the office. It will be our competitive advantage, but probably the hardest task of all.

Be the best partner ever to the CMO – Covid has proved one thing: CMOs are brilliant and resilient and just what any business needs in the time of a crisis. When businesses are faced with the most challenging of times, the one area you can control is how the brand behaves and operates. We need to hold on to that thought in 2021 – we will make better work as a result.

Our mental health – I don’t think we yet realise the impact this has had on our mental health. It won’t suddenly disappear. We need to keep this top of mind, we need to be there for each other and support each other. We’re a people industry so we have to protect our most critical assets.

Diversity and inclusion – I’ll finish on the most important point. We have a lot of work to do to get this industry to be more diverse and welcoming. We’ve made our commitments to the agency and we will be doing everything we can to achieve them to make Bartle Bogle Hegarty a more diverse and ultimately a better creative business.

 All in all I’m excited for next year. Is 2020 over yet?

'If you're good at what you do, you'll be used to attacking those curve balls'

By Larissa Vince, chief executive, Now

 One thing agencies have always been good at is dealing with curve balls. Brief changes, revised commercial targets, budget cuts or recalcitrant acting talent are part of the day job. And if you’re good at what you do, you’ll be used to attacking those curve balls with relish and using them as an opportunity to get to a better place.

Well, for the past nine months, we’ve all been getting our heads around the biggest curve ball of our professional lives, and in theory we ought to be well equipped to deal with it. So, with that in mind, what have we learned that we can keep doing in 2021? 

As agencies, we tend to talk a lot about being flexible. Over the past few months, we’ve all had to act with – not just talk about – true flexibility, and with grace. That’s meant taking the long-term view with our clients, not throwing toys around because something’s come out of the next quarter. Easier said than done when you’re looking at a hole in your numbers, but it’s madness to do anything other than think long term, in my view.

But that same flexibility has also meant it’s a great time to be proactive, think differently and come to clients with ideas outside of response to briefs that could help solve a sudden new problem. Those sorts of solutions can be strategic, or creative, or nothing to do with communications at all, but they build your value almost more than anything else.

Same goes for creating a proper sense of being in it together. At a time when clients’ fortunes have sometimes changed overnight, it’s been even more important to listen hard and actively try to understand where each other is coming from. If you’ve been there for your client when things are tough, you’ll be better off when things are back to normal. 

And really importantly, a hybrid working environment has given us the chance to create a new kind of workplace that meets different needs rather than being one size fits all. As an example, in our new office, we’ve created a large creative room where teams can have their own space to talk about ideas. So they can focus on the magic without worrying that the annoying CEO is going to walk past and throw in a curve ball of her own.

'We shouldn’t be looking to get back to agency life as we knew it'

By James Murphy, founding partner, New Commercial Arts

A year ago, Campaign’s 2020 predictions warned that, when thinking about the future, we overestimate short-term change and underestimate long-term change.

2020 seems to have turned that on its head as both short-term and long-term change have exerted maximum pressure, simultaneously. Creating disorientation for some, trauma for others, but perhaps the conditions for some radical and positive change. 

The long-term pressure was already driving fresh thinking about what we do in agencies. A shift beyond just making promises for clients, to helping them keep those promises. That shift will continue in 2021 as skill in customer comms continues to evolve to encompass skill in tangible customer experience. The promises we were making for brands had become easy to put to the test, and easy to publicly tear down. Customers no longer saw comms and thought “I might pop to that shop on Saturday” or “I’ll book a test drive at the dealership…” They could just click on the link, pop open an app, go straight to the site and look at socials for ratings. Multi-screening, and the mobile always in hand, has seen brands tested instantly, and the shame of broken promises shared instantly, at scale. 

No wonder more CMOs are evolving into chief customer officers. Brands that get their promise and their experience to reinforce one another reap magnified rewards. And this is where agencies can deliver much more for clients than both consultants (short-term investment cases) and tech specialists (the latest innovation). Agencies understand people, human beings, the emotions that dictate their decisions. This understanding is liberally applied in marketing, but rarely in experience, where consultants are busy with spreadsheets and cost-benefit analyses. Real commercial success in 2021 will come from applying our human understanding in the places where it’s been sorely lacking – in the keeping of promises, not just the making of them.

If the long-term change is about customer experience, it seems the most immediate short-term change in 2021 will be about our own experience of working. The past few months of agency life have been mixed. For some, it’s been an exhilarating opportunity to flex existing skills and knowledge in new ways. The Zoom existence has felt fast and efficient and liberated us to spend more time on work that we value and non-work things that we value. For others it’s created a working experience that is listless, rootless and lacking healthy boundaries. But as we look forward to 2021, possibly powered by a vaccine, we shouldn’t be looking to get back to agency life as we knew it – perhaps we can shape something better. 

Over decades, the agency model has evolved into something stubbornly conventional, uncreative and stifling. What was once a dynamic, irreverent and rule-breaking industry can seem afraid of its own shadow and ashamed of its core purpose.

A year without offices, desks, cubicles, commutes, and with visibly less hierarchy, politics and egos, has hinted that we can work in a more positive, energetic and enjoyable way. If we ever wanted to change how we work, how we live our working lives, and perhaps even improve the work we create, then 2021 is the time. 

Illustration: Ben Jennings