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Dancing to a new tune: 'Un-learning' old schools of thought in new agency-client dynamics

As Universal Music launches its own agency where pop stars take on the role of creative director, we look at the different ways client/agency partnerships are being challenged.

“Passion point-powered and insight obsessed,” was how Universal Music’s new in-house agency Bring billed itself in a pop-culture laden launch video in February. Asserting that it won’t be drawing inspiration from the “traditional” ad school of thought, the shiny new outfit will instead be calling on its artists, like Lady Gaga and Ellie Goulding, to step into the shoes of the creative director and help launch campaigns.

Looking to lure advertisers with its positioning as a “startup-minded supergroup,” Bring isn’t alone in shunning the notion of a classic model; from marketers moving in-house to creative shops undertaking joint ventures with brands, the way clients and agencies work together is undoubtedly changing.

Brands taking control of their own marketing is nothing new. Companies like Specsavers (with its own in-house agency) have long been making award-winning creative, but the trend of brands taking control is on the up. Research from digital society SoDa shows that last year 27 per cent of companies claimed to work with no agencies for their digital marketing, up two-fold on 2014.

There’s more to this shakedown, however, than brands taking matters into their own hands. This ongoing trend has splintered, creating a string of new models that allow advertisers and agencies to both have their finger firmly on the content button.

One example is Spark44, a bespoke joint venture agency set up between agency management and Jaguar Land Rover in 2011 to serve as Jaguar’s global communications consultancy. Just last year it picked up Land Rover’s entire global creative and digital account which, chief operating officer Ralf Specht says, is a strong indication this tandem approach works. The key difference compared to a typical agency model, he says, is that everyone has “skin in the game and a shared interest”.

Spark44's Jaguar campaign for China featuring David Beckham

With a portfolio of work for Jaguar now behind the agency, including the highly successful ‘Good to Be Bad’ campaign, Specht laments that while moving to a shared business model was “highly desirable” from a talent perspective, it was not without its challenges. “Setting up a new agency is a challenge; setting up a new agency model is something completely different. Internally and externally it is very much about ‘un-learning’ how agencies traditionally operate.”

“For example,” he adds, “we do not incentivise commercial growth, which is standard practice in large agency networks and holding companies. We incentivise efficiency, creativity and collaboration.

“The ‘un-learning’ is also true for the client-side of the equation – moving to a new shared business model changes the dynamics of the agency-client partnership quite considerably.”

Broadcast broadening horizons

TV advertising is another arena undergoing transformation when it comes to established agency models. From 4creative to BBC StoryWorks, many broadcasters are looking to replace advertisers’ need for a traditional media agency and position themselves as the go-to destination for brand partnerships.

This practice has been evolving over the past decade, with buzzwords like ‘native’ or ‘branded content’ more than commonplace in adland, but broadcasters’ content shops are moving beyond the creation of a 60-second spot into spaces like social and experiential.

CNN’s in-house advertising team, Turner Commercial Productions (TCP), has embraced this growing trend, and counts Samsung, Emirates and the Qatar Foundation among its clients.

Creative director John Malone thinks part of the appeal in working directly with TV networks boils down to broadcasters having a unique understanding of their audience: “Being in-house is essential for the role we play in making branded content for advertisers on CNN,” he says. “Because we understand and respect the DNA of the brand, we’re well positioned to make content that will sit comfortably on CNN platforms."

Hunter Boots' new campain featuring the band The Perfect Storms

A 2015 multi-platform campaign for Schneider Electric, to coincide with Paris’ landmark climate conference, COP21, and including social outreach and sponsorship of CNN’s Two Degrees online hub, highlighted how TV networks’ in-house agencies are moving beyond the small screen.

“10 years ago the focus would have been on creating a 60-second ad – now it’s the creation of all kinds of content for online, mobile and social executions as well as TV,” says Malone.

Going it alone

While collaborative models appear to be having a moment, some brands are rethinking their dependence on agencies entirely.

The past year has seen brands like PetSmart and News UK’s Sun newspaper join Specsavers in bringing creative closer to home. There’s a growing appetite for responsive and real-time campaigns among brands; is this, coupled with the financial draws of setting up an internal creative offering, driving advertising in-house?

Graham Daldry, creative director at Specsavers, believes that creativity plays a big role: “It’s easier to maintain creative independence and pursue creative excellence without pressure to make money for clients as a business. In this respect, we have a freedom which I think many agencies would envy,” he says.

Daldry says Specsavers feels like it’s missing “very little” by not working with an agency. Another positive, he adds, is the ability to think in a “much more long-term way” than an outsider could. He does however concede that Specsavers runs the in-house team as it would an agency, by maintaining “some distance and a clear creative perspective.”

Specsavers' long-running  'Should've gone to' campaign created in-house

For Jaguar, as Spark44’s Specht points out, moving away from a more traditional model was a big commitment. “Driving the end-to-end integration across all marcom channels is not a piece of cake. But the shared commitment of all parties has been – and still is – a critical factor,” he asserts.

As the gap between brands and agencies narrows it’s clear that in-house or external is no longer the only choice for advertisers. Alasdhair Willis, creative director of heritage brand Hunter and former publishing director of design magazine Wallpaper, agrees. “Having come from a creative agency background myself, I don’t believe its in-house v agency,” he says.

The past 12 months have seen Hunter partner with names like Graybo and Ocean Advertising to appeal to shoppers at London Fashion Week. Praising this unified approach, Willis says agencies and brand creative teams should “work seamlessly” together.

“The relationship with the agency should not be based on size, historic or long-term relationships but about the now, innovation and execution,” he adds.

If brands keep this in mind, we may see more “passion point-powered” collaborators popping up soon.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 6 April issue.

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