Imagining S4 Capital: a vision for Sorrell’s new venture

Two months after his sudden departure from WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell is back, and there’s just one question on the industry’s lips: what will his new agency look like?

One thing’s for certain: it will be different from WPP. The big groups are finally waking up to the fact that their siloed model is obsolete, and Sorrell has already indicated that his new business will look to develop “significant opportunities to develop technology, data and content”.

But these are just words – what does merging traditional creative services with technology, data and content look like in practice?

For the past decade we have been operating a different model to the big groups: one which is focused on collaboration rather than competition between specialist agencies, and on combining creative services with data and technology – the alchemy for effective communications in the 21st Century.

Based on our experience of this model, here are three defining features I expect to see as S4 Capital gets off the ground:

The new agency must be more than a holding company

Last year WPP had its worst year for revenue growth since 2009, and it wasn’t alone: Omnicom, Publicis, IPG and Dentsu were all among those who struggled despite a generally buoyant market.

The lesson is that the rigid structure operated by these agencies is no longer fit for purpose, and even Sorrell's first class reputation couldn’t mask the fact that WPP had fallen behind the times.

One WPP figure has been quoted as describing the group as like Westfield shopping centre: “Lots of shops and different shopkeepers, instead of a John Lewis store with many departments, but only one store manager.”

For the past decade, Engine has housed all its agencies under one roof in order to create a more unified and collaborative culture, and now others – most recently Publicis – are following suit. It would be no surprise to see Sorrell's new venture branded and housed as a single entity, rather than a collection of distinct businesses.

It must look to emulate the recent success of smaller rivals

While the industry’s traditional superpowers have been struggling in recent years, there have been rich pickings for more agile, digitally-focused mid-tier agencies who have been eating their lunch.

It comes down to your ability to meet 21st century briefs. Communications today is about creating holistic customer experiences, and that can’t be done by a siloed collection of warring tribes who share nothing in common other than a shared cost centre.

With additional pressure coming from global consultancies looking to move in on their turf, agencies know that making this transition is a matter of life and death.

It’s about mindset: sharing in each other’s successes and failures. Sharing the same building helps, but Engine’s experience tells us that fostering collaboration starts with culture – so expect to hear less about the new agency’s individual brands, and more about the services it provides. Sorrell will want to break down traditional discipline-specific barriers and focus on creating an agency which is as flexible and nimble as its smaller rivals.

Data and technology at the epicentre

Technology gives us powerful new ways of communicating with our audiences and of capturing their imagination, and that’s why many brands today want to create holistic customer experiences, rather than traditional creative campaigns. Data also allows us to be more targeted about who we’re speaking to, and more precise about what results our campaigns have delivered.

The secret is working out how you combine creativity, technology and data – not just in one-offs, but across all work, all of the time. That’s the tricky part, and it’s the bit you can’t buy in.

Simon Peck is group managing director of Engine UK

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