Here be dragons: A view from AdForum Paris – Robin Charney

Thirteen agencies and consultancies over three days. Big and small. Independents and networks. Local and global. A great spread to give me a sense of what the marketplace has to offer. That was my experience of AdForum Paris. And yet all I could think about was dragons.

Dragons, I hear you ask. Why dragons?  Here be dragons is an expression meaning dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of a medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps. And in Paris I was thinking about dragons. They were everywhere. The independents talked about the network dragons. The networks talked about the consultant dragons. Everyone talked about GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) and, to be fair, those are some big, dangerous dragons. My mind was awash with dragons. Agencies were clearly focused on their own problems and not those of the people who pay them.

Unlike my colleague Paul Phillips who attended AdForum in NYC earlier this year, I didn’t hear the enthusiasm and optimism that the US-based agencies had conveyed. Maybe the Americans were just being American? I don’t know. In Paris I spoke to a range of industry leaders sharing their points of view. These are the folks with years of experience and knowledge, and with their fingers on the pulse. And what I heard was fear and an obsession with what was going on in the adland village. It was fear of disruption.

Given the year our industry has had, I get it. It’s been tough, no doubt. However, there comes a time to pull your finger out, sort out your dragon-defeating strategy and get on with your battle plan. No matter which dragons you’re fighting.

A room full of international new business consultants is a good place to show your battle plan. I know and appreciate that agencies don’t like to admit they’re in need of change but, in these turbulent times, if you’re not talking about how you are dealing with disruption that raises alarm bells for me.

AdForum Paris presented the thirteen agencies we met with a huge opportunity to share their game plans and get us excited. Agencies are well placed to know how to deal with disruption as they are no doubt are talking about it with their clients all the time. They know (or should know) what’s on the minds of marketers. But where were the client insights? Only one agency, BETC, had a client speak on their behalf. Agencies are in the perfect place to show off their knowledge of how clients are changing and adapting to disruption. Surely some of that knowledge can be applied to agency businesses as well?

There were, thankfully, a few notable exceptions. Some agencies did share their dragon-defeating plans with us. You & Mr Jones’ model of investing in companies like Pinterest, AI platforms and data companies like 55 is fascinating. TBWA/ stood out as a network tackling dragons head on. They didn’t have anyone over 35 presenting. To me this showed guts and an understanding of where the industry needs to be moving.

For an industry great at selling optimism and hope, full of talented and clever people, I’m counting on agencies to be more forthright about their battle plans because we need all the foot soldiers we can get if we’re going to conquer new lands. And I believe we can.