The Ad Exec: The network life
by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) Many of us grow up in advertising leading parallel lives, as we learn and progress in either an independent agency environment or a network that potentially has generations of intellectual property and entrenched structures.
For as long as anyone can remember, the debate between the virtues of the two has raged: global agencies carry a stigma of valuing commercial performance over creativity, while indies are typically seen as ‘free’, agile and unhindered by external influence.
After the acquisition news of the past 12 months, there are plenty of formerly-independent agency owners and executives making the adjustment to network life. I am one of them.
Much like a romantic soiree, the chemistry between the acquisition target and the network is vital. It goes beyond numbers and the client roster, existing in a deeply ingrained compatibility of culture, people and structures. For this reason, the networks certainly do their homework.
The honeymoon that follows is a period of acclimatising to your new surroundings. Often a new office, new colleagues, reporting lines and clients present staff with a great degree of uncertainty. At this point there is great effort required upon two fronts — planning the cultural and operational integration of staff, while simultaneously maintaining stringent focus upon client delivery. Internally, transparency and inclusiveness are paramount.
Many agencies would have approximately doubled their headcount in the move, immediately met with the need for structure at scale and the dilemma of how to stay nimble with 100 or 200 staffers. At the same time, they will feel the sudden and significant impact of the type of clients that may now be available to them — knowing that, in many instances, multinational marketers carry globally aligned agencies. Foreign in the sense that former-independents had likely never been ‘gifted’ a free lunch, excited and daunted by the expectations that accompany such an assignment.
Business as usual
After an initial period of 6-8 months while the dust settles, people sort out their seating arrangements and workstreams are organised, a new reality sets in. The anticipation is over and the business of getting on with business is well underway.
There is a higher level of accountability than most indies would have experienced before. The regularity and complexity of reporting increases, the intricacies of hiring, aligning infrastructures and decision making become multi layered.
Planning is now a fundamental, not a luxury. You need to know where the next paycheck could be coming from.
Tools to grow
Despite the doomsayers, what strikes me most is that there is no less of a desire to achieve both commercial and creative success within a network. In many ways, the opportunities afforded to global agencies provide the platform to perform at a very high level in both contexts.
For the first time, newly acquired teams may pick up the phone to China, New York or Accra to tap into IP, technology or advice. Case in point: within two months of integration, we were fortunate to win a pitch with a partner agency in Africa, without whom we would never have had the local insights required to produce credible work.
Attitude is everything
Many industry pundits (mostly independent) will accuse their peers of ‘selling out’.
Attitude at this point is critical. If you truly believed you were selling out, you’d lose the love of your everyday and actually fail in a dismal self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe independents need to think they are ‘selling in’ — to bigger clients, a new era of learning and development, and a greater level of professionalism.
Certainly, this may present many new challenges sneakily disguised as red tape but, as with anything, you’ll learn the ropes and settle in just fine.
I am personally feeling positively challenged by the experience and remain eager to grow our brand and our business, ever aware that I am now a custodian of an agency name almost 90 years in the making.
With a decade of local and international experience in leading brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels (@thomasfels) has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of agencies. His skills are put to work daily as group managing director of Publicis Machine. He contributes the monthly “The Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.
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