Ad Agency of the Future by Y&R SA CEO Andrew Welch

Posted: October 16, 2012

By Y&R SA CEO: Andrew Welch

As I stare at my laptop, idle index fingers poised over a lifeless keyboard, I can’t help but think that punching out another pronouncement on our glass-half-full golden future or glass-half-empty inevitable demise is going to do little to keep anyone reading beyond this. Though I can’t guarantee the golden future bit, I can offer a few simple truths I believe will shape success, all the while avoiding the predictably glib outcries of “it’s all about digital, viral, guerilla, mobile, word of mouth, social… ”

Ads. Ad agency. Ad sector. Ad land. AdReview… it’s all about ads right? Comforting perhaps, but confining – like the i-phone is all about making phone calls, right? While TV is still the most powerful brand-building medium (probably always will be), success will depend on how agencies integrate new competencies and operate the breadth and depth of the communications offer while remaining strategically connected to the core of their clients’ businesses. (And no, we haven’t withered away in the face of the pure-play). So either we need to expand the definition (say, advertising and technology?) disrupt it (any offers?) or exceed it (again, think i-phone).

Brand and branding. Not the same thing. And we confuse them at our peril. Brand equals meaning; branding equals signals/messages. We typically do the latter brilliantly, less so the former. And to do the latter without the former is not just short-sighted, but wrong-headed and expensive. Brand demands strategic thinking and real business understanding. If we cared for brand as much as we do for branding – and charged for it accordingly – we’d be in better shape and we’d have better access to that client top table we all too readily bemoan eludes us.

Meaningful. Different to meaning. In difficult times, brands more than ever need to earn their place in people’s lives by being meaningful (a rare concept to earn…) This demands that we help our clients’ brands not just amplify their distinctiveness, but that we evidence their very special relevance to customers’ lives in big and small ways, day in, day out. Less about selling, more about serving. Less about positioning something, more about taking a position on something.

Ideas. Happily, they’re not going away. But they are going to become harder to originate. In this connected world, ideas move free and far and fast (60 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute). Ideas have become democratized (good) but inspiration commoditized (bad). Remember how cool discovering something on TED used to be? With everything accessible to everyone everywhere all the time… inventing your own idea, rather than repurposing someone else’s, should become the currency of future success.

Value exchange. What we should all be striving to orchestrate between our clients’ brands and their customers. And it only happens when you get content and experience right – simultaneously – and when engaging with the brand is both rewarding and effortless. Sure, emphasising brand benefits matter, but my guess is that commercial benefits will largely be derived from clear, insightful and entertaining content that is relevant to the customer. Beyond all traditional measures, perhaps the notion of value exchange will become the metric for future success?

Culture. Like brand, culture is one of the few truly sustainable sources of competitive advantage. Why? Because culture is damn hard to copy. So be clear about what you believe in and what makes your agency authentic. Belief is contagious (what client wouldn’t love belief and authenticity in their agency?) And be clear that culture should encourage fluid, open-minded approaches to business problems, should trailblaze collaboration and should permanently question stubborn rigidity in structure or over-dependency on process (a worrying definition of process: “process: makes mediocre talent look good”). Good culture is unerringly positive and resourceful. Good culture inevitably makes good things happen (aka success).

Clarity and simplicity. No more marketing bullshit. For an industry that claims to worship at the temple of clarity and simplicity, we all do a lousy job of evidencing this in the day-to-day. My advice: read Dave Trott. Read everything Dave Trott writes. You’ll never feel the urge to “leverage a multi-platform 360 interactive experience…” again.

Finally, full service or niche agency? Wrong question. Ideally, indispensably relevant agency. If you don’t prize relevance you’re surely moving towards irrelevance. And in a multi-cultural and connected society, what is relevant changes hourly. In our own agency, we’ve empowered each local office to be rooted and relevant in its own market, while making it easier to collaborate, inspire and work across our global network – a sort of global boutique (if that’s not creeping up the bullshit-ometer?). We offer each client access to tight teams of ‘grown ups’ (why would you let any one more junior run ragged on that most valuable asset called brand?) that prize local insight, culture and behaviour. And they are all creative, not necessarily Creatives. And, yes, so far it seems to be paying off.

So, glass-half-full? Or half-empty. You decide. Me, I’m just grateful you’ve read this far.