Back To School Reset Moment

The Great September Reset

With the economy growing, ad spend booming, and agencies welcoming staff back in- now is the time to "build back better"

By Ian Darby

“Challenging” is the polite term used by many advertising people to describe the impact of the past 18 months or so.

But, with a busy autumn in prospect, there’s every chance that agencies can benefit from the growing momentum around them.

Rising Consumer Confidence

Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association (AA), said recently when unveiling an anticipated rise in UK ad budgets of 18.2 per cent for 2021 - an upgrade from the 15.2 per cent rise forecast in April: “UK ad spend growth also looks set to race ahead of European markets, reflecting the success of the vaccine rollout and fast-rising corporate and consumer confidence.”

The forecasts, compiled by the AA and Warc, also suggest the UK is on track to achieve the fastest advertising recovery of any major European market this year.

There’s talk in the air among agencies of a chance to really move forward in brave and different ways - using the idea of a “September reset” and the potential this has to fundamentally remould business models and the cultures that underpin them.

With that in mind, to what degree are agency leaders taking the opportunity to evolve their cultures for the future to meet the changing demands of their people and clients?

Reshaping Company Culture

In terms of the general picture, Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at MediaCom, says there’s room for cautious confidence. However, especially given her key role in helping to set MediaCom’s strong culture, she says there is a big issue to face here: “The importance of getting that sense of belonging, that importance of culture, back and right is just vital.”

Bill Scott, chief executive of Droga5 London, agrees, and also adds that the last 18 months has also eroded agency and the client culture. "No matter how much you get together on Zoom and Google Hangouts creating that vibe is just not the same,” he says.

Prominent factors beyond Covid are also driving the need for a reset. Let's not forget how this time has rightfully focused our collective attentions on inequality and racism, according to Karen Martin, chief executive of Bartle Bogle Hegarty London. "The past 18 months have made us much more open and empathetic - with each other, and our clients. We’ve become more agile, more responsive and more forgiving. We’ve seen lots of partnerships, relationships and friendships become stronger as a result.

There’s definitely an opportunity for reflection, and at the centre of everything we’ve been doing to ‘reset’ is how we look after our people - both ours, and our clients’.” The Publicis-owned agency has also re-evaluated its hiring process, bringing on new partners such as the bias-free recruitment agency, Hidden. It has also partnered with The Unmistakables, to build "cultural confidence" to help make work more inclusive and diverse.

Creative Response to Reset

Other agency leaders also identify what has happened in recent times as an opportunity to transform their own culture for the better. Jules Chalkley, chief executive creative director at Ogilvy UK, says it has worked on building its approach of “borderless creativity” into new areas: “This has led to an opportunity to create the future that we want, we’re much more borderless now in the way we operate and we’re de-centralising.

"Many of our young creatives have gone back to their home cities and geographically we’re more diverse. We can draw on global talent really easily but the exciting narrative is that I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the old ways, and that’s good. Partly the old model wasn’t working and we’ve put a lot of effort into that with testing how we work in future.”

Chalkley says that Ogilvy is looking to evolve the whole notion of a creative department to make it more open and break down traditional team structures to bring in new types of people: “There was a subtle flaw in the idea of a department, I think actually that narrows it down. We’ve experimented a lot with different talent mixes, which is something we may not have done otherwise. Our experience people are much more involved, our PR capabilities are instrumental, and we’ve really leaned into our behavioural science team, which has been amazing.”

Evolution Of Agency Models

Mat Goff, joint chief executive of adam&eveDDB, believes that it’s an especially exciting time because agencies now have a chance to implement significant advances in technology “to make this difficult job a little bit easier.” And no, this is not just a reference to Zoom or any other form of video conferencing.

"There’s not been a lot of other tech applied to the generation and development of advertising. We’re still developing it in the same way that we were three, five or ten years ago. The outputs that we need to create on any project are now unbelievably complicated and the more tech we can bring to our working practices to remove some of that friction to increase the time people have to develop the ideas and craft those ideas, less on the processing of them, the better.”

Droga5’s Bill Scott says that the agency’s ownership by Accenture Interactive, now well into its third year, is providing natural momentum for an evolution in the agency’s offer: “We’re finding really good opportunities with them [Accenture] now with how we can unlock synergy, growth, and collaboration with clients. How we can really bring experience-led conversations to our clients meaningfully. We’re beginning to see it now with clients such as Barclaycard, so it’s a really interesting avenue.”

The needs of clients are obviously central in any agency reset. Jules Chalkley explains: “This is genuinely a moment where people are thinking ‘what’s next?’ We’ve been through some hard yards and our relationships have become closer through that, it’s much more informal and honest but our clients are under serious pressure. They’re improvising operationally, things are changing really quickly, and we’re adapting our business model to be as fleet as foot as possible to do the same. There’s a much greater need for flexibility.”

Bill Scott says that the focus at Droga5 is on greater flexibility too: “We’re also working out with clients as they return to work what the new MO is going to be. The traditional weekly status meeting doesn’t have to be face-to-face. There’s going to be some new muscle memory that clients bring when returning to the office and we’re going to have to adapt to that.”

Adam&eveDDB’s Mat Goff says that the agency’s cain&abel production unit and its customer experience offerings are in particular demand from clients. However, even in this reset moment, what clients are seeking from agencies doesn't change, he says. "Great ideas brought to life brilliantly."

Jules Chalkey also talks about the world outside of advertising looking more closely at brands and how they treat their own people: “Authenticity is much more important than it ever has been. How do we help them (clients) be part of the world in a positive way, how does my brand help the world? We’re looking for those real opportunities with them.”

Importantly, there’s also the prospect of a welcome reset in personal terms for agency leaders. Karen Martin suggests making time for family and having fun as the ideal buttons to push for a reset moment. “I’ve been far more present in my kids' lives and I’m going to continue doing the school run on a regular basis. My family are in Ireland and I felt a real sense of longing for those 20 months that I wasn’t able to get back and visit. Now that we can travel again, they can’t keep me away.

"With work, I want us to remember to have fun, and enjoy it.”

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