agency leaders change

What change would agency leaders most like to see this year?

We spoke to some agency chiefs to find out what difference they want to see played out this year

By Olivia Atkins

OK, so we're all painfully aware that it's only halfway through January and that some personal new year resolutions may have already fallen by the wayside. But Blue Monday is already behind us.

Equally, real structural long-term business change is still a possibility in 2023, so we spoke to some agency leaders to find out what they plan to focus on this year and how they hope to see the year evolve.

Sustainability

The need for a more sustainably-practicing ad industry has long been preached, but is it achievable?

Peter Reid, global chief executive at MSQ, believes it's a fight worth pursuing: "I’d like to see the industry move beyond theoretical sustainability programmes and standard carbon reduction policies to genuine mitigation strategies and making real reductions in year-on-year output.

"I'm proud of our Sustainability Report – we believe that all businesses in our industry should be producing these to drive towards Science Based Reduction Targets. Then it’s about developing low carbon marketing services and carbon removal programmes – embedding sustainable initiatives that make a long-term difference to our planet’s future."

Agencies pledging to do things more sustainably is important but, as Reid mentions, the introduction of sustainable initiatives and getting the right measures in place makes for a more viable future - and there's hope that it's an approach more agencies will continue to adopt in-house.

Positivity and bolstered optimism

For a variety of (obvious) reasons, retaining a sense of optimism among agencies has proved challenging. But a new year offers a chance for a change in perspective and to review - and possibly reverse - current outlooks.

"I’d love for industry commentators to start talking the whole industry up a lot more," says Jon Goulding, Atomic's chief executive. "There are so many exciting, creative, fast growth parts of our industry, even if it’s not in agencies that were the growth machines of yester-decade. If we started to hero and support the broader talent that are driving the growth in the industry at large, there would be a very different story to get behind. You’d see this industry being driven by entrepreneurial, diverse, creative talent that don’t need wider industry recognition to be successful."

Guy Sellers, Total Media's group CEO agrees that a united sense of optimism should continue into 2023: "The consideration, respect and trust that developed between agencies, clients and media owners during lockdown was a particularly positive outcome that developed under intense pressure. My hoped-for change is that this survives."

Self belief and confidence

However current realities still make for a backdrop of dulled confidence. It's something that many agency leaders are looking to reverse.

Larissa Vince, chief executive at TBWA\London, agrees. She says: "I’m a bit obsessed with confidence levels in our industry. It started a while back, when I was chatting to a friend who is CEO of a start-up business. He’d just run a pitch to find an agency and he said he found it extremely weird how all the agencies he saw were so apologetic about what they do.

"I’d love to see us all get a lot more visibly confident about the brilliant impact that we as an industry can have on businesses and brands. We do great, effective work and we should be proud of that work, even if it’s been done by another agency!"

Sam Hawkey, CEO at AMV BBDO, says: "I'd like us to get behind the best work and really celebrate it this year. I heard some people complaining that adam&eveDDB won everything at a recent awards do for the same campaign - CALM's 'The Last Photo'. The other way of looking at it is that it's a brilliant idea that shows the power of what we do. So if you have to clap a few more times for it then great."

Advertising is a competitive business and sometimes one agency's success can result in resentment from competitors.

But poaching talent is not something that Bill Scott, CEO at Droga5 approves of: "I'd like to see agencies stop stealing each other’s precious talent. We are our own worst enemies."

Chris Kay, CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi suggests agencies need to embrace their internal offerings and output - as a way of combating collective scepticism. He says: "Confidence in our product and the power of creativity is key. Our country is going to need the best and most brave ideas to help chart a course through the challenges we will face. And as an industry we need to be coming together to be confident, take our rightful place in the boardroom, do things that consumers love and change that culture and client businesses."

It's something that Gareth Mercer, founder at Pablo, is also passionate about: "Belief and action - that's what I want for 2023. There are many challenges that exist in making our industry more open and diverse and there are large economic pressures looming. However, commitment to innovation, creative thinking and action is where our value and power comes from. If we apply this with focus, we will surprise ourselves with what’s possible."

Naturally during economic downturns, it can be difficult to look on the brighter side of life, but there's plenty worth seizing hold of and celebrating particularly in the burgeoning non-traditional advertising sphere, which has proved an interesting new area for agencies to become involved .

New Commercial Arts' managing director Hannah White, says: "We need to celebrate all things creative. Some of our most impactful work this year has been in customer experience – whether that’s creating Uber’s global membership programme or re-imagining the Nando’s restaurant experience. It’d be great to see the industry talk more about all forms of creativity – the big, shiny moments as well as the everyday magic we can create when consumers interact with our brands."

BBH's CEO Karen Martin couldn't agree more, and urges leaders to refocus on celebrating creative work in particular. "I'd like to see a celebration of commercial creativity as it feels like we’re hitting peak saturation in purpose-led work," she says.

Acceptance

The next few years are looking like they will be challenging for agencies and consumers alike but acknowledging these difficulties and accepting this reality will help agency heads to better plan and make the most of and seize new opportunities as they arise.

"If we accept the next two years or so will be economically challenging, and that therefore becomes the new normal, lets collectively raise our heads again, get brands back to looking longer-term, building brand preference again and committing to strong, brave and inventive creative media work," says Andrew Stephens, co-founder at Goodstuff.

Commitment

The battle against injustice and discrimination has been seized upon by agencies. It's a change that many leaders want to see continue flourishing in the year ahead.

"We need a greater commitment to exploring and introducing new ways of working for our neurodivergent talent and a willingness for agencies to share their journeys with one another," says Annette King, CEO of Publicis Groupe UK. "It's going to take a massive collective effort to get to where we need to be."

Diversity is key agrees Michelle Whelan & Justin Pahl, joint CEOs of VMLY&R, and something they're wanting to put front and centre on their agenda this year: "We've got to see a change to recruiting more diverse talent and finding new ways to help people into this industry."

But it's up to leaders themselves to bring this focus into fruition, says Michael Frohlich, global chief transformation officer and EMEA CEO of Weber Shandwick: "As leaders we still all have more to do in offering our clients a modern and relevant picture of work. We can no longer expect our clients’ customers to see value in bought messages alone.

"There is a demand for the full spectrum of tools and experiences that earn value through our clients’ contribution to business, society and culture. This recognition of what really drives immediate impact and sustainable value will elevate what we do as an industry."

"Obviously our industry still has a mountain to climb on diversity," agrees Charlie Rudd, Leo Burnett's chief executive. "I would love to see that change fast but sadly it will take more than a year. In addition, I’d love to see the swagger return to our industry; what we do is special and has very significant positive business effects."

Return to creativity

As a creative industry, believing in big ideas and in the possibility of realising them shouldn't fall short - not now nor during a looming global depression.

"We need a return to brave," says Sarah Golding, CEO at The&Partnership. "We must stand up for the right ideas, the right causes and the right people. God knows we are going to need it in 2023."

Instilling hope, creativity and returning to work that truly matters will most resonate with consumers this year.​​

Katie Mackay-Sinclair, partner at Mother, concludes: "We’re entering the post-purpose period; it’s not enough to do brilliant work for purpose and good enough work for delivering a commercial return. I can’t wait to see the creativity that flourishes from the need economic crisis creates - not the end of purpose, but the end of the false dichotomy of purpose and product."

Despite predictions of continued economic uncertainty and instability this year, agency leaders are optimistic that change is on the horizon if they embed the right focus and commitments in place. The road ahead may be long and challenging but given the foundations laid out in 2022, the industry is continuing to strive to push for a more hopeful, fair and connected year - where it can deliver work that's more meaningful than ever.

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