Specialists’ Sea Change

​By Megan Clark, Managing Director, Copper Brand Experience, J. Walter Thompson Group

​It all began on a stormy Sunday in November at an old bach in Northland. Through the salt-crusted windows, a fearless cyclone raged and whipped the sea into a frenzy. It could have been a scene from a clichéd TVC. A sea change was coming.

The laptop was borrowed, the remote coastal village had prehistoric dial-up, but five solitary days later there was a plan. It was 2003 and in four months’ time I would launch an agency on an old kitchen table squeezed between the fridge and TV, with no clients and a hell of a lot of faith.

Twelve and a half years later, with most of that plan achieved, this agency entered a new world, having left ‘Independent Agency’ status and forming a partnership with a large global network agency.

In a small New Zealand market this brings the obvious commentary from competitors, other business owners and clients, begging the questions, “Why do it now?”, “Why do it at all?”. For any owner/operator who has shed blood, sweat and anguish to build up their company over many years it’s a meaty decision to go to the other side and no longer be the total master of your destiny. You are potentially letting go of the very reason you founded your own business in the first place: independence.

All business owners have their own core drivers, some of them with an exit strategy from inception, others fiercely independent to the end.

The answer to “why?” comes down to sustainability. It’s harder for smaller agencies to compete. It’s certainly harder to attract good talent. It’s absolutely harder to get on pitch lists. And it’s incredibly tough coming up against the might and glow of a globally-awarded creative team.

The communications business landscape has become more complex, and the ability for individuals to be a jack of all trades is increasingly unlikely.

Agencies offering fully integrated solutions under one roof can better provide solutions to complex brand requirements. Smaller agencies can lack the breadth of expertise and resources to deliver these solutions. An integrated model better achieves this. Yes, clients want specialist capability, but dealing with fewer agencies is attractive.

For traditional creative agencies the opportunity to add non-traditional capability simply makes good commercial sense. In an increasingly fragmented communications world, future-proofing their business model with wider capability is imperative.

Once the “Why?’ is answered, the other question to be addressed is the “How?”. In the case of specialist-integrated partnerships, we’ve all seen these succeed and fail. The reasons for each are many and varied, however, observing the movings and shakings from my previously independent perch, the merging (or not) of two cultures and the alignment of values will have a considerable impact on the outcome.

The second biggest factor is the delicate balance of support versus strangulation. Most often, an independent agency will be of interest because of both the work and the leadership. Nothing will make an entrepreneur bolt for the door faster than if they are disempowered, or worse, shoved in a corner and only engaged with when the monthly reports are due.

So what’s in it for clients? This should surely be the driving question.

There are clients who don’t want to lose the brand and culture of their specialist agency, the nimble approach to solutions, or the team. Then there are clients who want the extension of services and expertise that can come from an integrated model. The trick is to harness the best of both worlds to maximise all of these things. Simple? No. Achievable? Absolutely.

The future of all agencies, whether specialist or other, is a changing, swirling ocean of opportunity. What is certain is that this sea change won’t be the last.