The accountable ad agency
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Mike Abel never blinks. Literally. Or at least he didn’t through this interview, the two of us and Chief Creative Partner Peter Badenhorst stuffed into a corner table at the Loading Bay Café, a coffee shop below the new M&C Saatchi Abel offices in De Waterkant, the former gay quarter of Cape Town, now trendily mainstream.
For two guys who have helped direct and drive some very mainstream brands to success their talk is decidedly alternative. Not in the ‘fuck-is-my-favourite-word sense’ (though it might well their favourite word) but rather in their take on the ad agency they want to build. For them advertising is all about – wait for it – accountability.
The accountable ad agency. Sounds a bit like designer beer, airline food or business ethics doesn’t it. You’d think a new oxymoron has just seen the Wiki. But wait, they are serious, and to prove it they are devising metrics that will form part of every brief to measure both clients’ return on investment and determinants of success.
Badenhorst says that ad agencies have always been a force unto themselves. They compare themselves with other ad agencies, rank themselves though industry awards and have had little incentive to look beyond the rather narrow parameters of their own industry to notice business is changing. “We have been doing the wrong thing exceedingly well,” says Badenhorst, “rather than fulfilling clients’ business requirements.”
Abel adds that he wants to build an agency of depth and capability. He believes the economic recession means that M&C Saatchi Abels’ skills sets are more valuable to business than during better economic times when less is at stake and profits come more easily.
Zeyad Davids, another of the partners in the business, later tells me that within large corporations there is now a growing and already significant focus on measuring the impact of marketing expenditure, beyond the typical, but broad ‘awareness’ measure. He should know having run the digital marketing and CRM strategy team for Deloitte.
“Understanding that no two clients are identical, part of my role will be to apply a proprietary thought process whereby we work with our clients to define up-front a scorecard of success measures based on the tangible business outcomes they need our work to achieve,” says Davids (OK, just remember the guy worked for Deloitte). “The success of our strategy and campaign execution will then be measured against this scorecard irrespective of the channels we use to reach the market. Our tool takes into account, actual shift in sales volume, primary research, response channel activity, web metrics and other customer benchmarks.”
The agency currently employees seventeen people and Abel says he will spend the time before their first clients sign on training his staff. He isn’t interested in scrambling to fill key positions only when a client is already on board. He promises to be generous in growing talent. He sees M&C Saatchi as a collaboration of minds rather than sets of egos. He claims to be fielding CV’s from numerous creatives, even managing directors sharing the founding teams vision of what an agency should be about – namely growing the clients’ market share.
So far the new agency has no clients signed up and Abel denies that he had any clients up his sleeve before he launched the agency. He expects it to take three to six months before business starts rolling his way. He claims to have the financial backing to weather this period without a problem. Between the lines it’s clear that Abel, Badenhorst and the rest of the team are confident of a positive reception from former clients. Ogilvy may rightly give pause for thought. They know us, he says, and we have had amazing client relationships in the past. The agency, says Abel, is capturing the imagination of many in the industry, and as many marketers, with its ‘no bullshit’ attitude.
I ask Abel how the South African agency environment compares with that of Australia where he served a stint as the CEO of the M&C Saatchi Group Australia. Abel says that while on the surface there are many similarities the best advice he received on going over was from somebody how told him that South African’s play to win and Australians play not to lose. South Africa has a frontier economy while in Australia they play it safer. He found it creatively conservative with agency people scared to stand out for fear of being taken down – tall poppy syndrome is alive and well in Australia. That said business organisations expected a clear ROI from their agency, more so than in South Africa.
Marketing decisions are also taken at CEO level in Australia and pitches were made to both the CEO and the marketing director. Digital is core to any marketers thinking in Australia and not simply a division within the larger marketing process. The notion of a digital stand-alone agency is obsolete. “Digital is no longer the future,” says Abel. “It is now.”
He came back for personal reasons – his wife was unhappy in Australia – and while he learned a lot in Australia he believes South African management already plays on a global stage. “They couldn’t teach me anything about managing an ad agency,” Abel says.
We head up to the M&C Saatchi Abel offices upstairs. Basically it’s still a construction site with computer terminals clustered in the centre of the open office space. Three of the four corner offices are still incomplete. The views are spectacular. I realise that all through the interview I never once thought that the no bullshit agency might be bullshit. Frankly the ad industry cannot afford it to be. Business models need to evolve and to innovate or the industry will become unsustainable. If M&C Saatchi Abel walks the talk it will bring renewed energy to an industry increasingly isolated from reality behind awards shows won by ‘pro-active work.’
M&C Saatchi Abel – www.mcsaatchiabel.co.za