Authenticity, diversification and optimism at AdForum NY – Paul Phillips

Five days spent in meetings with agencies from across the spectrum, starting at breakfast and ending with dinner, crisscrossing Manhattan and Brooklyn, listening to agencies’ sales pitches that ranged from subtle, understated and persuasive to blunt, jargon-filled and unconvincing may not seem like fun. I rather enjoyed it.

The last week in April marked the latest AdForum Worldwide Summit in New York. Consultants from around the globe spent a week being infused (or indoctrinated) with the latest from Madison Avenue and DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass – think Shoreditch only bigger).

The agencies we met can be split into two groups. The first are heritage agencies originally offering single-discipline expertise: Ogilvy, BBDO, JWT, McCann, Wunderman, Publicis, DDB and Doner. The second group can best be categorised as 21st century agencies born in, and created for, a connected, participatory, mobile, experience-driven world: Brooklyn Brothers, Spring Studios, Virtue, Big Spaceship, Anomaly, 72 & Sunny, Tongal, MPC, G7 Entertainment and R/GA.

Every agency did a pretty good job of sharing their latest point of view on the world (with a couple of notable exceptions), together with the best examples of their recent work. Reflecting on the week, there were three themes that emerged for me.

1. The heritage agencies are fighting back – and winning
Far from being squeezed in the middle ground between the management consultants and the newer breed of agencies (some of whom can be a little too quick to diss all heritage network offerings), the best heritage agencies are fighting back and appear to have worked out who they are, what their expertise is and where they can add value to their clients’ business.

Ogilvy’s work for Glade, BBDO’s work for Pedigree and McCann’s work for Sodimac Homecenter in Peru are all excellent examples of creative thinking being applied to a business challenge.

The solutions are not all 30 second TV advertising, but they do all use the power of insight and creativity to help solve business challenges. And we saw many more across the week.

So my point about agencies sticking to their knitting might seem a little obvious, but for too long agencies whose origins are in the Madmen era have been distracted by what the new agency kids on the block are saying and trying to compete on their agenda. Instead these heritage agencies should be recognising and celebrating the authenticity of who they are and what they have to offer.

For me Ogilvy is probably the best example of a heritage agency that knows itself. This was clearly evidenced when we met them in New York and is equally recognisable at Sea Containers House in London.

2. The new(er) agencies are not tied to the delivery of communications solutions as their only playbook
Integration, collaboration and horizontalisation are all recognised descriptors of an agency way of working that has essentially extended from a single communications skill to a multiple offer across different areas of comms expertise. Essentially the strategy has been to take a bigger slice of the marketing pie.

What has become noticeable and distinctly different among several of the 21st century agencies is the range of diversified services that spread beyond the agency’s core marketing communications skills, and are in no way dependent on them.

Examples of such diversification are Anomaly’s interest in HMBLT a (legal in California) range of cannabis-based medicines, and 72 & Sunny’s creation of a waterproof onesie called a Raynsie which they manufacture and market directly, prices starting at €299.

This diversification is not the exclusive domain of the newer agencies, as we learnt from Wunderman. Its business growth is most rapid in its marketing technology and automation consultancy.

Perhaps the most advanced playbook can be seen from RG/A. It has five revenue streams: Ventures, which is an accelerator and investments business; Business Transformation, offering consulting and brand development; Studios, which offer design and production; an IP division offering software licensing and partnerships; not forgetting R/GA the agency, offering products, services and communications solutions. RG/A never fails to impress.

3. There’s a genuine sense of self-confidence among agencies, a sentiment that has been noticeably absent on recent visits
As someone whose theatre of operations is dominated by the world of new business, I’m used to agency optimism as the default demeanour, at least among the new business fraternity. But I detected a more authentic self-confidence among all agencies with which we met. And remember this was less than six months after the election of Donald Trump.

In general, agencies and holding companies have been on the back foot over the last few years. There’s been a continuous wave of anti-agency sentiment; some possibly justified and some certainly self-inflicted. We’ve all heard about de-coupling, the spotlight of procurement, the rise of the management consultants, the displacement of agencies as a brand’s trusted advisor, the lack of diversity and tangible actions to address this, the obsession with measurement at the cost of outcomes, the rise of in-housing what was once the preserve of agency services, and most recently the lack of transparency in media.

If you take a moment to think about it, you could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to get into this business.

But listening to BBDO Worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson, DDB North America CEO Wendy Clark, McCann Worldgroup CEO Harris Diamond, Ogilvy CEO John Seifert, R/GA Global CSO Barry Wacksman, Anomaly Founding Partner Carl Johnson, Wunderman Global CEO Mark Read and Publicis Communications CEO Arthur Sadoun, there was a universal sense of optimism and belief that all of their companies had a contribution to make, the value of which is being recognised by their clients. There’s a genuinely-held belief that the opportunities for our collective industry far outweigh the threats to it.

It’s this sense of optimism – balanced with a recognition that it’s not going to be easy and we are owed nothing – that for me continues to make our industry a magical one in which I’m lucky enough to participate.