by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) In the world of advertising, each era is defined by a small number of agencies. These are often not the well-established multinational type, but the small, dynamic upstarts that do things a little differently, grow rapidly to become significant players, and emerge years later as businesses that made an indelible mark on the industry. For many, trying to emulate their success is a source of huge inspiration. If there is a code, can it be cracked, or must each agency pursue their own true north in order to achieve their full potential?

Creative leadership

What sets advertising icons apart in many instances is the halo effect of an enigmatic leadership figure: Ogilvy, Bernbach, Saatchi, Droga and Bogusky — timeless names who have defined the very notion of advertising during each of their tenures.

Most, talented in the extreme — David Droga was worldwide creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi London by age 30 — but beyond their talents, uniquely philosophical about the running of their business, the vast majority of these leaders being creatives at heart, not businesspeople looking for bottom-line success at all costs.

And so this notion of creative leadership emerges as a key theme in codifying the aura of agency excellence.

Working philosophy

David Ogilvy, “The Father of Advertising”, was known for his extravagant standards, and has coined more advertising phrases than many may remember. One of his most significant paints a colourful picture for the scale of his personal ambitions, transposed into his agency culture: “Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.” There was no space for mediocrity in the company of David Ogilvy and, while he believed that the greatest talents lay with non-conformists and rebels, alignment to this company ethos was paramount.

Droga5, only a decade ‘old’ and yet named agency of the year seven times, is already an icon of the modern era. Built with a simple but powerful focus, David Droga’s view on starting an agency is that “[y]ou have to work your ass off and be brave enough to have an opinion about what you are doing, because the world isn’t looking for another agency — it’s looking for good ones.”

His business has since grown a reputation of developing ideas for social good, which he believes attracts talent interested in solving problems, not just creating ads. This values-driven thinking creates a worthy ethos where it’s not ‘succeed at any cost; it’s succeed the right way’.

The work

With clearly articulated leadership and an empowering working philosophy in place, when all is said and done, the work is the acid test. Weiden + Kennedy, founded a stones-throw from the Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon, is almost synonymous with the brand, so inextricably has the success of the two businesses been linked. There is a signature to their creative work that is bold, energetic and, at times, rebellious.

Decades on from their early ground-breaking work, the agency has continued to revive the Old Spice brand with gusto, and earn the trust of Coca Cola, KFC and many other global marques.

Consistency of creative product, and the impact of that product, is what earns agencies the trust of their clients.

When those clients are sufficiently large, the scale of the creative impact becomes rocket fuel for the propulsion of agency reputation. If you’re doing good work for Coke or Nike, the whole world is going to see it.

Think different

The work, the work, the work. BBDO’s famous old mantra still rings in my ears as I think back to the search for my first-ever advertising job. True, too, is that the work does matter. But remarkable agencies start well before the work, in their deep beliefs, the dissonance they have for the established agency model, and the difference they believe they can make in the world; for their staff and for society, as much as for their clients.

I believe that if there is a single key to unlock the code of iconic agencies; it sits in the realm of ethics. The passion with which the team pursues the ideals of the business will generate the work, the relationships, the reputation and, indeed, the legacy.

David Drogba summed it up perfectly when he addressed the audience at Cannes in 2014: “The thing I believe is, we are good if our peers think we’re great. But we are great if the real world thinks we’re good. And there’s a huge difference.”



Tom FelsWith 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 “Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.

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