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What does your agency stand for?

Every time I meet an agency owner, I ask them why they started their business and more times than not, they tell me “I like helping others”.

It’s a trait to be admired by these Samaritans. It can offer great fulfilment seeing the people you’ve helped flourish and grow to become better people. But one day (or every day) you’ll probably ask yourself, what about me? I don’t believe you’re selfish to ask this question. I think there needs to be more of a balance and a bit more give and take in your quest to help others. Otherwise, who are you?

Similarly, if you think about agencies or many service-led organisations, their focus is to help other businesses achieve their goals. Agencies often start with a clear purpose and direction but over time they bend to the will and desire of their clients and suddenly they wake up one day and the startup they once believed in is almost unrecognisable. Their own goals and ambitions tend to disappear into the background, while the brands they service go from strength to strength (if you’re any good). Or they take on so many different clients and wrong projects that they appear a ‘jack of all trades’ with no strong identity or service offering.

As my business partner likes to say, “we’ve gone from Mad Men to Yes Men”. Agency founders often don’t have a lot in common, they just all have a disillusionment with the industry and want to make it better – that’s as far as it goes. What they should be doing is standing for something.

That brings me to tell the story of Grey’s recent rebrand to Valenstein & Fatt – a story that grabbed me. For the first time in my career I saw an agency willing to stand up for what it believed in and have a greater purpose than that of servicing its clients. Essentially, it is building a brand and this is what many of today’s agencies are greatly missing. I interviewed Andy Lockley, creative director for V&F (Grey) London, to get a better understanding of why it embarked on this mission and the relevance it has on our industry.

Grey was founded 100 years ago in 1917 and was one of the original ‘big boys’ on Madison Avenue. What many don’t know is that the agency was founded by two Jewish owners, Lawrence Valenstein and Arthur Fatt, who because of the antisemitic world they lived in decided to trade under a name that wouldn’t be linked to their religion so that people would do business with them. Fast forward a century and progress has been made but antisemitism along with many other forms of racism and inequality still exist today.

For the last few years, Grey, along with many other leaders in our industry (and beyond), has been making a stand for diversity. Andy said he “would be horrified if we as an industry were ahead on diversity. But those in the communications world know what an influential role we can play on culture and that we should be an honest reflection of society, not the pale, stale and male world we see around us.”

Grey decided to do something about it and in doing so, it stands for something.

Nowadays there’s a new agency popping up every day with all sorts of names like Wizzle, Bambikoot, Lollipop, The Big Red Roundabout… (Don’t Google these names – I’m being facetious – you get the point!) But who are these agencies and what do they stand for? Andy knows this only too well, reflecting generally on agency webistes: "Their 100-word purpose looks like it's cut and pasted from an accountancy firm”. The phrase I see time and time again, “we’re an award winning, full service creative digital agency” – does anyone recognise that?

Andy references DDB and Ogilvy – agencies with founders in their name who represent their north star and a sense of guidance. But how does an agency philosophy or DNA get passed on? How many people interrogate their own agency or know their back story?

It seems strange that we take so much consideration over the brands we wear, eat, drink, bank with etc, yet the place we spend most of our lives, we know nothing about. Where did we come from? Why do we exist? What was the founder’s vision? Maybe people just don’t care. I’m sure they would if they found out their owner was a chauvinistic Nazi but ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’, right? It seems strange that in this day and age of transparency and flat hierarchies that more people aren’t emotionally invested enough in their organisations to ask these questions. Employees need to make agency owners accountable or should go and work for someone with a purpose. Life’s too short!

We take agency owners on this journey all the time – I’m currently working on my eighth agency rebrand in the past year. It’s a brave quest where you must accept a mirror being held up to you and admit your weaknesses, but you’ll be so much better for it. I’ve seen tears, joy, stories that shock, pure emotion, anger and at the end of it they always come to a place of peace of mind, realisation and a new reborn energy and passion for their business. In doing so we create a brand and mission for the organisation.

As a creative, Andy recognises that “as an author of your work – you’re not best placed to package it all up. Sometimes the media are more eloquent and polished but the best people are independent [of your organisation] because they can be more objective”.

So, this is why I respect Grey so much. How would you feel if your entire organisation took something they stood for by the scruff of the neck and said, 'we’re not just going to talk about change, we’re going to do something about it?' Something like rebranding an entire agency (no small feat), a five-point diversity plan, a school outreach project and a cross industry task force. How proud would you feel as an employee, a client or a supplier of Grey? Andy retold me stories about the praise and excitement they have received from clients and people across the network for the rebrand. Employees proud to update their LinkedIn profiles. It’s amazing what can happen when you have a north star, a clear vision and brand message.

Agencies don’t have to be subservient to their clients or appear schizophrenic by taking on all sorts of brands and briefs. Panic and fear will do this to you. They can be a brand to and they can stand for something. There used to be a time when agencies were in the driving seat and revered for the work they did. Clients would come to them for advice and marvel at their intelligence and creativity – where’s it gone? We can win it back if we just stop undercutting each other on price and educating the clients we work with. Challenge them, put your foot down and fight for better work and we might get back the respect our predecessors had on Madison Avenue.

Grey did it properly. Of course, there will always be the sceptics that say 'it was just a PR stunt', but if you look at how much time, money and effort the agency has invested in this, you’ll see that there is much more to it than that. The PR and new business success it has seen off the back of this, not to mention the buzz and motivation around the agency, is a direct result of it standing up for something it believed in – its purpose. Or as Simon Sinek would say, 'the Why'.

Grey discovered who it was by looking deep into its archives and finding a story driven by the crippling fear that the world we live in lacks acceptance, equality and diversity.

If agencies were to look back at their own history they would learn a lot about who they are and use it to shape their future.

Adam Graham is co-founder of Kiwi Gray

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