Once upon a time, there were only two levers that agency leaders could pull to build a successful business. These were culture and people.
A belief system designed to drive a certain set of behaviors, talent and the organization of that talent were essentially all it took to make an agency better and different. This may sound simplistic, but if you look at what drove the success of Wieden+Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Crispin Porter Bogusky or R/GA back in the day, it largely boiled down to culture and talent, as represented by the founders and the businesses that they built. And if you look at the small number of meaningful turnarounds of multinationals in the U.S. over the last 10 years, it was a preoccupation with culture and talent on the part of Ty Montague and Rosemarie Ryan at JWT, Tor Myhren and Jim Heekin at Grey and, arguably, Harris Diamond, Rob Reilly and Suzanne Powers more recently at McCann that drove the change in these agencies.
As everyone knows, digital disruption, media fragmentation, new technologies and the overall pace of change have reshaped the agency landscape beyond all recognition. The race to acquire new technologies and data and to leverage the opportunities afforded by them has been the primary focus of the main holding companies for several years. And following on from this, the need to reorganize and find structures and processes that can be scaled and deliver a profit in a fast-moving, tech-enabled world has been the overwhelming challenge for agency groups.
The marketing press is full of agency messaging around the acquisition of tech capability and tech talent, and the merging of major advertising networks, not renowned for their speed and agility, with their digital siblings. Tech and data have been the optic through which agency groups have sought to be viewed by clients and stakeholders. It has been the agency world’s equivalent of its own shifting of the tectonic plates.
However, while the investment in some technologies and data will only make commercial sense for the biggest players, most of the technology associated with producing high-quality content at speed and distributing it at scale is becoming increasingly affordable and more accessible for smaller, independent players. What’s apparent to me currently is that, as the barriers to entry are coming down, ultimately technology and data will be a hygiene factor rather than a differentiator. If tech capability and the ability to scale up are no longer a competitive advantage, then what will differentiate agencies in the years to come?
Once upon a time, it was culture and talent. And it won’t be long before culture and talent are the two most powerful levers that agency leaders can pull again to build a successful, sustainable business. Culture attracts the best talent, culture is the most powerful retention tool and culture can drive diversity. Leaders who understand how to build a culture and attract the best talent will come into their own again.