Independents’ Day: The time is now for more marketers and independent agencies to unite

The theme of independence has rocked global headlines over the last week with the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Over the coming days, that same independent spirit will be lauded on the US side of the pond as America prepares to celebrate her 240 years of freedom from the British Empire.

From an economic perspective, independence continues to be one of the most dominant macro trends influencing commerce as consumers celebrate the independent in categories from beer to restaurants and from fashion to music. So it should come as no surprise that brand marketers across the globe, who have traditionally turned to large, holding company-owned agencies, are turning to independent shops for innovation, agility, and yes, even multinational scale.

I should point out that I spent over a decade at one of those “large, holding company-owned agencies”, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I worked with passionate, talented people who created powerful and effective work for some of the world’s most renowned brands. We were given tremendous opportunities to learn, to lead, and to take risks. We were well-resourced and well-compensated for the results we delivered for our clients and our agency. We were a great team. And winning was all we cared about.

But winning looks very different these days at many agencies whose parent companies are publicly-traded. Quite frankly, when the shareholder-centric orientation of the holding company clashes with the client-centric orientation of the agency, it becomes difficult for anyone to win.

Exercising independence

We often think about freedom in the context of people, religion and politics, but I maintain that today, operationalizing freedom in the context of business is crucial to driving organizational and economic success. Every owner of an independent agency will tell you that the freedom to make their own decisions enhances creativity, productivity and accountability throughout her/his organization. In a business climate where brand marketers require agile agency partners who can adapt and adopt freely, the lack of dependence on a holding-company framework would seem almost a necessity.

Here a just a few compelling aspects of the independent agency spirit:

  • The ability to choose clients based upon passion and profit; a shared purpose always benefits both parties
  • The absence of mandated headcount models allows independents to experiment with more progressive staffing and fee structures
  • Project work doesn’t scare them, as long as the project excites them
  • Independent shops can evaluate investments in talent, technology and even clients based upon long-term outcomes vs. quarterly (or even monthly) returns
  • They are entrepreneurs who are focused on building businesses, not building careers.
  • These independent dynamics are attracting talent from larger, holding company agencies with global brand experience

This is not a question about whether an independent agency is “better” than a holding-company agency. But a convincing case could be made that the operational freedom independent agencies enjoy better positions them to support the requirements of speed, agility and accountability – without sacrificing creativity, innovation and scale – that brand marketers are demanding from their agencies today.

Let freedom ring.

John Harris is president and chief executive officer at Worldwide Partners

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