Local ethos, global scale – how independent agencies are using collaboration to scale and create

The team at London-based MBA

Independent agencies are utilising the advantages of digital networking, collaboration and global affiliations to build scale. The Drum speaks to three independents about the roles technology and collaboration play in their business models.

In comparison to their network rivals, independent agencies have often been perceived as smaller, lacking in scale and therefore somehow less capable of handling global accounts. But things are starting to change. As independence becomes a USP in an industry filled with seemingly never-ending mergers and acquisitions, those agencies going it alone are standing out from the crowd – and many are thinking outside the box in order to provide the same quality brands can expect from a network.Collaborative, international approaches to business are underpinning the ethos of many of today's successful independent agencies, with more and more independents tackling issues of scale that may have limited them previously with the help of global affiliations and technology. In a globalised world, the international agency membership network model is one approach to tackling limitations of size for independents, and this type of agency partnership can open up opportunities in overseas markets. Independent agency networks are partnerships between companies looking to take advantage of the benefits of a traditional network – global scale, shared insights and knowledge of local markets – without selling.Manchester-based BJL is part of Tribe Global, which allows its member agencies to capitalise on access to local market knowledge, combined with the opportunity to pitch for clients in territories they may otherwise not have had access to, according to MD Nicky Unsworth. "We are of a size and scale that means we’re able to work with big clients and when it comes to reaching into territories, our history with working with partners outside the UK has only being strengthened through our membership of Tribe Global."London-based creative agency MBA has worked with independent agency network The Network One for a number of years. This offers the agency not just global partnerships and local support, but also access to training, development and industry best practices. The collaborative approach has allowed the agency to deliver more, explains managing partner James Middlehurst."Bringing together different but complimentary skill sets and capabilities through collaboration with a range of different partners around the world – whether in PR, branding or media has enabled us to deliver truly integrated, global campaigns where the end result is often much, much greater than the sum of the parts. It is this collaboration that has enabled us to expand in to the US and gain a network of trusted partners."Collaboration plays a key role for independents – not that it's always the easy option, explains Jonathan Ford, co-founder of design studio Pearlfisher. "Collaboration is not always easy and can take you to unexpected places! Especially with a mix of talented, opinionated and ambitious people (on both sides). Sometimes you need to force collaboration – for better or for worse – as, often, the very best creative ideas come from a collaborative approach. You just need to take an objective view of the work and ask yourself the age old question "does it meet the brief?" and, putting aside petty differences, use coercion, politeness – and if that doesn’t work, a sheep dog and a truncheon – to get the right result."Technology and the rise of digital logistics has aided operations for independents, giving rise to a new world of previously untapped opportunities and connecting them with clients in far-reaching places. Living in the age of connection has changed perceptions for clients who now understand the world is a global marketplace when it comes to creativity and marketing services, according to Ford."In today's world it’s easy for us to get international exposure and to innovatively take advantage of things like digital and social media to work with and connect in ways we could not even dream of 10 years ago. So, working with international clients now is just a formality, especially as they themselves know that it’s a global marketplace for creative talent."We live in a digital world now and technology has undoubtedly aided how we create, connect and work together – both internally and with clients – navigating through different time zones etc. We are more connected and accessible than ever before and this immediacy does, of course, enable us to work more quickly and efficiently."For independents, having a stake in the business is also key to competing with networked agencies and create an important point of difference, according to Middlehurst, who argues that being owner-managed gives the agency a more entrepreneurial approach. "We can make our own decisions and if we decide to, can take longer term views on some of the types of business we go for. Equally we can be flexible in our approach to remuneration. With nearly all of our clients we have a performance related pay structure in place – so if our clients do well then so do we and if they don’t then we don’t."This view is echoed by Ian Millner, CEO and founder of Iris, which has grown to 19 offices globally while remaining independent. Millner says independence allows the company to make ownership a tangible benefit for its key individuals. "In many cases our clients are working directly with someone that actually part owns Iris. This creates a level of commitment that you tend not to see in the large networks."So when it comes to conquering the world, it’s not just the big boys ruling the roost. Partnership and collaboration will continue to bring agencies and clients together no matter what their size or ownership, and at the end of the day, it’s the people that matter. As Middlehurst puts it: “at the heart of what we do is human emotion – which hasn’t and won’t change”.This feature is published as part of a series on independence, which includes a feature exploring the benefits of staying independent vs selling.

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