by Johanna McDowell (@jomcdowell) NEW YORK CITY: On our final day of the AdForum Worldwide Summit NYC, 24–28 April 2017, we started out at Tongal, the world’s largest community of independent writers, directors and animators. Members self-select the briefs they want to work on. The community consists of 135 000 creative professionals in 150 countries working on an “opt-in model” basis who producing branded content for every type of screen, platform and audience.

Naturally, the quality of the brief is a critical success factor. One of the funniest quotes of the week came from a Tongal strategist — ex Saatchi & Saatchi London — who said, “How many creatives does it take to change a lightbulb? Does it have to be a lightbulb?” The key to the success of the model is the management of the community. Tongal has a very strong strategy department, and these are the people who help the client prepare better briefs. They check them and ask the community for input.

Working directly with clients

Headquartered in Santa Monica, CA, the community used to be used by agencies as a creative resource but now Tongal has developed into working directly with clients. How does it work? A brief goes into the community. Three hundred ideas may come back within four days. Of those, 296 will probably be rejected, with four worth taking further. The eight full-time strategists are the core team in terms of evaluating the briefs, evaluating the ideas and helping to take the ideas further. The 5–10 good ideas that come up are tested among the Tongal community before being presented to clients.

This “crowdsourcing creative” model has five advantages:

  • Speed
  • Scale
  • Authenticity
  • Abundance
  • Certainty

Pricing: quotes and proposals are based on the briefs. Pricing is competitive and there may be 30–50% savings for clients. But “don’t look at us as a cheap production house,” says Tongal.

Every idea receives feedback

How are creatives kept interested when so many ideas are rejected? Every idea submitted receives feedback from the Tongal team. This helps the creatives to build their body of work and their success rates. Confidentiality is kept via the NDA process that everyone signs when joining the community. Apart from being paid for their ideas, the creators who win briefs are published on the website; this adds further value to their work and experience.

Tongal receives about 500 projects per year and all of the resultant briefs. It is trying to move away from projects only and would prefer to work on a continuous basis with clients. As the community may be monitored via social media technology, lots of communication takes place between the creatives, producers and strategists. Clients have to purchase the ideas — and might also buy additional ones. Everyone’s ideas are protected.

Tongal partners with Facebook and Google and others, as Tongal is a mechanism that helps crack content for these platforms. In this day and age, clients no longer are prepared to wait for long-term creative and production from their agencies — and then wait again for them to repurpose that creative for social media platforms. Tongal expertise speeds all of this process up.

Tongal also makes money from the production of the winning ideas.

How does it work with agencies? As Tongal is a disruption model, working with agencies is not easy — which is why Tongal now works better with clients directly.


Our final agency meeting was with one of our favourite agencies in the world. Leading the way as always, R/GA updated us on the last six months, where a lot has happened in the world and the pace of the global landscape for advertising is accelerating. With turnover of US$406m, R/GA is part of the Ad Age A-list, Campaign’s Advertising Network of 2016, and a Fast Company top 50 most-innovative company. It has 19 offices in 14 countries with 2000 staff.

How does it see the landscape? It talks about the Five Fingers of Death:

  1. Procurement
  2. In-house agencies
  3. Consultants/tech and management eg PWC, EY, Accenture
  4. Behemoths (Facebook and Google)
  5. Automation (artificial intelligence)

What is an agency to do? R/GA sees a multitude of opportunities to disrupt a multitude of industries — the secret to its successes to date. It has built its network step by step, plus it has six different business units and revenue streams.

R/GA sees its purpose as “[harnessing] the power of technology to create ideas that move culture and improve people’s lives”. Its approach is to produce work that is consistently inventive by working at the intersection of creative and technology.

R/GA showed us work from around its network, demonstrating that, although at one time the New York office used to be the main source of great work, the work is now consistently good across all of its agencies. These can create award-winning work all on their own.

“Make stuff”

One of the income streams at R/GA is its consulting but as consultants who are also makers. It is not logging hours but preferring to “make stuff”. Making is essential to business transformation and it is motivated to move at the speed of innovation. As such, it knows that innovation takes more than acting like a startup; it is able to strategically assess large corporate entities and help them provide unique competitive advantages.

Case studies from Walmart (demonstrating business transformation via technology) and from Samsung (“Unbox your phone”), plus a banking one, were further evidence of the foresight of this agency. An interesting fact from the banking case study is that 71% of millennials would rather go to the dentist than go to a bank.

And so ended this very special meeting with R/GA, which always has something new to tell us, no matter how often we see them.


Key observations made at this summit

  • Agencies are learning to become more consultative and involved in business transformation — there is an opportunity to earn much-better fees as a result of this
  • Agencies have become far-more business-focused as a result of maturing and have learned to develop and build their operating systems
  • Production facilities in-house increase the agency’s ability to deliver results quickly, and cost-effectively. In addition, these are new income streams for the agencies. Many agencies are now able to produce broadcast quality content in house, thus retaining income and control of output.
  • Content production is critical to the success of any agency and in particular now with the explosion of internet channels; agencies are remaking their businesses to fulfil the growing needs of brands and consumers.

See also


Johanna McDowellJohanna McDowell (@jomcdowell) is managing director of the Independent Agency Search and Selection Company (IAS), which is partnered with the AAR Group in the UK. Johanna is one of the few experts driving this mediation and advisory service in SA and globally. Twice a year she attends AdForum Worldwide Summits as an international consultant, which helps her lead the SA advertising industry forward, keep in line with international trends and remain competitive. She runs the IAS Marketers Masterclass, a programme consisting of masterclasses held in Cape Town and in Johannesburg.

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