The Agency of the Future

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Bollocks to the rules*

* “The rules!” shouted Ralph, “you’re breaking the rules!”  “Who cares?”  Ralph summoned his wits.  “Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got!”  But Jack was shouting against him.  “Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong — we hunt!”Lord of the Flies, William Golding

I’ve never been that keen to follow convention. Hence a sort of wonky career path. A First in Industrial Design that led to a job at Smash Hits magazine (yes really), which led to Saatchi & Saatchi that then bounced between established names, boutique agencies and founding a couple of start-ups. Now I’ve joined a creative agency with its roots in data science, but with a present that mixes discoveries in cognitive behaviour with AI driven social insights. Oh, and with headquarters in Sheffield.

So, the current level of disruption within our industry I see as only a good thing. Right now, this is the most incredible time to be working in communications. Algorithmic automation is changing people’s roles, but the realities of consumer wants and desires mean that now more than ever, there is a pressing need for the wondrous chaos of human creativity. Sure, plenty of voices speak of despair with shrinking budgets, rising costs and merry-go-round agency appointments. But over and above all this, have we ever had such an opportunity for innovation and free thinking?

Technology and societal changes mean that the old rules genuinely don’t apply.

Technology and societal changes mean that the old rules genuinely don’t apply. Fast becoming a cliché and the subject for many empty-headed articles (clearly not this one, obviously) the ‘agency of the future’ is going to be very different. The need to successfully advertise brands in fragmented media demands new insights and skill sets, deployed in a more flexible manner. Just as the automotive industry is currently experiencing, knowing you need to change is very different from actually making that fundamental change. Sure, there have been many announcements of shake ups in traditional agency structures; technologists as CEOs, groups with single P&Ls. But it does all feel a little bit like shuffling deck chairs.

Two things really stick out; talent and overheads. The thing with our industry talent pool is that we get the majority of our workforce via the British education system. Which is just about adequate for servicing manufacturing and retail sectors. But the creative industries need the nurturing of free thinking, inquisition and wonder. Sadly, the doctrines of successive administrations have created a process of teaching and testing young minds that ignores the merits of the truly brave, innovative thinkers. The free spirits, and frankly barking, minds that are able to create greatness.

An understanding of the merits of failure and lateral application of talent may exist in start-up culture, but not within the UK education system. It’s a minor point but my own less than stellar exam results would have meant in today’s system I would not have gone to University. I really feel it is beholden on the talented, charismatic story tellers in our industry to spend more time in schools speaking with and motivating the oddballs and loose cannons who the system is lining up to brand a failure. History is on my side when I say that within the alternative thinking, non-conformist mind, often there lies a creator of a future pieces of utter genius.

Algorithmic automation is changing people’s roles, but the realities of consumer wants and desires mean that now more than ever, there is a pressing need for the wondrous chaos of human creativity.

The majority of our industry is based in London where living costs for a first jobber are ludicrously out of kilter with initial income potential. Thankfully, in most part, the unpaid intern is now a thing of the past. However, the creation of further debt on top of a student loans is a given. That’s some offer to a bright young mind torn between our industry and more profitable pursuits elsewhere. This is clearly already happening in the moving image industry, where in the past an early career in commercials could potentially lead to Hollywood. There are now many other, less painful routes to that goal.

Diversity also plays a big part of this. Much good work has recently been done to address issues of diversity in the industry, but we are still a long way off being a true representation of the population we wish to understand and influence. The advertising industry has always deferred to the plus side of the wealth gap, but this is now so pronounced that we risk losing huge chunks of our potential talent pool simply because we offer young talent what appears to be prejudice and greater debit.

The other point about overheads is sort of connected. As well as paying staff enough that they can actually live, is probably the more troubling issue of affording a space they can work in. For a traditionally structured creative agency based in London there is a bleak future of rent rises ahead with many predications about the expected increased costs of commercial property. None of this seems to allow room for the slender profit margins most agencies work to, unless they skimp on the production of service with cheaper, less able staff and questionable outsourcing. As such, it’s difficult to see how many agencies can afford to stay in central London. It is a terrible state of affairs when a huge percentage of a client’s fees go on paying the agencies rent rather than the skills of the staff who are doing the work.

That’s why I’m comfortable to have made the move out of London to work for an agency that has a small hub office in the city, but where 90% of our people are based in offices as diverse as Newbury, Leeds and Sheffield. This means we can afford stacks of really smart thinkers, not only from core disciplines but also the outer edges of traditional agency skill sets; brand and communications specialists spliced with epically hard-core data science. All of whom have the time and space to experiment and explore the possibilities in a brief. My team has the ability to call on the skills of specialists working on industry leading initiatives in everything from risk management and GDPR to cognitive brand recognition.

I mentioned how exciting it is right now. It is, just not within the core of our industry; it’s the fringes, the margins, the outliers who offer the capacity and belief in change. I got into this industry because I saw through our work that we can make things better. Our work creates work. We owe it to the brands we serve and the next generation of creators not to miss this opportunity to construct a new kind of creative industry. One not built within rules of the past, but the unwritten potential of the future.

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