June 22, 2020

New Normal? Independent Agencies Were Made for This

Written By: John Harris

It’s time to shift the conversation from whether independent agencies will survive the global crisis to how they can lead brands and advertising to a deeper relevance and resonance with people around the world.

The twin disruptors of pandemic and social unrest raise the bar on authenticity, credibility and speed by accelerating our evolution into micro cultures. To cross any kind of border today – custom, geography, politics or sentiment – is to enter a different world. A brand needs to speak all the language, from the right words to the right visual cues, gestures, looks, pauses, and silences. Proficiency isn’t enough; people will openly reject a brand that’s not fluent, and some will even dissuade friends from buying it.   

As relevance grows more fluid by the day, advertisers need to anticipate and ideate in real time. Ads need to match the moment with a new urgency and micro-cultural sensitivity. That takes cultural fluency, not brand studies to tell strategists and creatives from afar what’s needed. The audience may shift several times before a study comes back.   

Adopt a Daily Rethinking Habit

Rethinking and re-messaging brands – the hardest, most meaningful thing agencies do – must become an everyday instinct, not a once-a-year process. Advertisers’ success will depend on achieving speed of understanding and adaptation, not simply speed of production. In other words, they will need to frame the right message continuously, so they create the right content faster.

90 Days is the New Long-Term

Real-time messaging requires a new intensity in high-level, hands-on advertising. The linear, choreographed process must give way to a scrum where the most experienced people eliminate the time between insight, strategy, creative, production and media buying. Advertisers have shrunk the planning horizon to 90 days and expect to stay there for the imaginable future, according to a recent survey by Advertiser Perceptions. Advertisers are coming to realize they will need to adapt messaging and media more continuously from now on. And they are coming to expect they don’t need months to bring an ad into the world.

Fewer Layers Equals More Agility

Only an always-on branding approach can live up to this new pressure. It’s natural for independent agencies to embrace the change as a way of life. Indies have fewer layers, direct day-to-day connection between senior leaders and client decision makers, and more history making do with fewer resources. Senior leadership, particularly creative talent, stays consistent and has more time to focus on individual accounts – rather than being sprinkled into them for short stints periodically.

Building From the Market up

Globally, we’ll see a dividing line defined by what clients need to build brands from the market up. This requires scaling affinity, partnership and relevance. Affinity demands relationships with markets, not simply connection to them. Partnership requires shared purpose and incentive, not assigned goals and teams. Relevance comes from the ground up, not headquarters down.

Global as an Outcome

The new normal makes global an outcome rather than an organizing principle. Winning global campaigns won’t start with a unified message that gets customized to audience segments; the segments are too particular and powerful, and they morph too unpredictably. Instead, winners will amass global campaigns from micro messaging. In this way, the new normal demands that advertisers reorient and reorganize their operations to put local first.

Indie Agencies Were Made for This New Normal

Indies have an advantage here because they’re of the market. Their people live the nuances that determine real relevance, so they naturally keep pace with a shifting human experience that’s increasingly individual. By contrast, holding companies are built to scale affiliation, not affinity; to scale profit, not partnership; to scale resources, not relevance. They can adjust to the urgency of production but can’t completely redesign their business models overnight.

Human truth remains universal, but the human experience is increasingly individual. Our “new normal” will prioritize individualized understanding and expression, and change what it means to be a global marketer. In the process, it will showcase the greatest value of indie agencies.

John Harris is CEO of Worldwide Partners, one of the largest global networks of independent agencies.

Written By: John Harris