Agencies are dead, or so we are told, and the industry’s brightest minds heading for pastures new in the lands of brands and startups. But might it be a case of the grass always being greener? Before resigning agencies to the boneyard, we talk to two brand marketers standing out from the herd by migrating in the opposite direction.
There has been much talk that the agency world is dying on the vine. But then there are those who believe that agencies are still vital; they’re just morphing into a different mode, shifting with the rest of the industry to stay more than just relevant.
Two of those people have recently made the jump from the brand world into the agency realm, and it’s the brand experience that has made them both better at appreciating alternate sides of the equation. Wendy Clark and Geoff Cottrill, both natives of the Sunshine State who attended Florida State University and had senior marketing tenures at Coca-Cola, are prime examples of how brands can breed agency loyalty and make believers out of sceptics.
The parallel paths each took in their careers is merely happenstance, though one recent development is genuinely interesting and, to some, perplexing: both took on major roles at agencies — Clark as chief executive officer of DDB Worldwide North America and Cottrill as president at MullenLowe in Boston.
Anecdotally, within the industry, the idea of embracing an agency versus a brand is an ongoing debate. The allure of client-side can be enticing and doesn’t seem to have the same perceived baggage as being at an agency, even though chief marketing officer tenures are shorter than ever. Recent research from executive search firm Spencer Stuart indicates that the average chief marketer’s tenure in 2015 was just 44 months, down from 48 months the year prior.
“I’ve seen agency people go to brands and I think it’s potentially a situation of the grass is always greener,” notes Cottrill. “But I’ve always told people that when you get to the other side of the fence, it’s still grass and it still has some stuff in it that you’re going to step in. It’s not that different.”
The agency world is certainly in flux, but likely not the barren wasteland it is perceived to be. Vibrant, breakthrough work is constant and some of the world’s most talented people call agencies their home. The great benefit of being at an agency is that there is ample opportunity to be part of multiple brands facing challenges and problems — and that is fertile ground for the likes of Clark and Cottrill, who converse in the language of both brands and agencies.
“I do feel like I’m bilingual,” says Clark. “I can see both sides of the contract and, really, I can see both sides of everything because I have that perspective and that experience of being the client.”
For Cottrill, that empathy is obvious, knowing that the chief marketer’s chair is often more of a hot seat. “I think I can sit in the room with clients and understand the pressures they’re under. I understand the fact that the chief finance officer is probably leaning on the chief marketing officer to make sure all of the of money spent is returning and I can give a level of perspective as we’re pitching clients and ideas,” he says.
“Advertising is just one thing a chief marketer does in a day,” adds Clark, who was recently in a client meeting where she was able to share relevant experience from her time at Coca-Cola to help a client see an issue that could have been troubling. “That empathy of being able to look across a table at a client and go, ‘I get it’. I think that’s what I have used the most since I began.”
Making the big decision (and move)
For both, the idea of going to an agency was surprising yet intuitive. The fluidity in the marketing ecosystem demands that talent align with the right situation regardless of whether that is with a brand, or especially an agency.
“I hadn’t really ever considered that I could go in the agency side (again),” said Clark. “A lot of times we tie ourselves down to a definition of what our career should be, just because our experience lines up a particular way.”
Clark, who places a great premium on recruiting and nurturing DDB talent, believes that people with similar pedigree, especially on the brand side, can make an important impact.
“The movement of talent is probably one of the most important things to keep the advertising and marketing ecosystem vibrant,” notes Clark. “We do have an appreciation for all the advantages in the marketplace, and that we have those experiences. I think by doing that, we would get, collectively, an ‘all boats rise’ effect — we’d all get better and better.”
Similarly, Cottrill’s choice was puzzling to some, even in his first meetings with Lee Newman, MullenLowe’s US chief executive who played a big part in bringing him to the agency, and Alex Leikikh, MullenLowe Group’s global chief executive. But those concerns were assuaged when both made it clear his experience mattered a great deal.
“It never occurred to me I would go to an agency, but it never occurred to me I wouldn’t go to an agency. I never really thought about it,” says Cottrill.
“Five minutes into the conversation with them, I stopped and said, ‘Hey, you know I don’t have any agency experience.’ Alex said, ‘I know.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not sure you heard me, I have no agency experience at all...none.’ He looked at me and said, ‘That’s why we want you. We have enough agency people here and we’re a good agency. What we don’t have is your perspective.’ At that moment I thought, ‘Holy cow, I want to do this.’”
The naysayers lined up once the decision was made, he explains. “I have a number of friends in brands and on the agency side who said, ‘You’re going to an agency? Why would you do that?’ I thought that question was kind of odd,” laughs Cottrill. “I said, ‘Well, because you think that way. I think there’s a pretty big opportunity for a person like me to come to an agency and provide a different perspective.”
On the same highway, in different lanes, with a big stop in Atlanta
Though Clark did have an early agency stint with GSD&M, her years at both AT&T and Coca-Cola were deservedly heralded as successful due to her intuition, dedication and magnetic charisma. Chuck Brymer, DDB Worldwide’s chief executive officer, told Fortune that the North America chief executive role is “a complete natural for Wendy,” adding that at both AT&T and Coca-Cola “she gained unique insight into the issues facing marketers and how to leverage that insight within an agency. That’s a powerful combination.”
Cottrill’s leadership in his eight years at Converse most certainly turned the company from a struggling heritage business to a global cultural leader and iconic brand. His path is also paved with impacting major brands, starting with P&G, working with the likes of Charmin and Always. At Coca-Cola, like Clark, Cottrill left an enduring mark, eventually becoming global head of entertainment. Long a music fan (he used to sell Coca-Cola at Tampa Stadium as a teenager so he “could see rock concerts for free”), he led Hear Music at Starbucks before joining Converse.
To Clark, though, the global beverage brand was as much an “advanced degree you can get in marketing.”
“(It’s a) completely thought out set of principles, framework and philosophy all the way through to marketplace execution. You don’t find that kind of rigour everywhere,” says Clark.
Cottrill concurs with that sentiment. “In the mid to late 90s Coca-Cola was a magical place to be. People like Sergio Zyman, Chuck Fruit and Steve Koonin were pushing us to drive relevancy instead of merely being present in the marketplace. I’ve learned more from Steve Koonin than anyone else in my entire career. He encouraged me, and everyone for that matter, to break traditional paradigms. He pushed us to be more creative than we’d ever been before as a brand.”
Like Clark, Cottrill got real education and more: “My time at Coke taught me the power of true marketing versus simply advertising.”
Part of that evolution in the mid to late 90s were the agency partners Cottrill and Coca-Cola worked with. McCann and Ogilvy focused on TV, while agencies like Momentum were brought in to help “activate” the brand on the ground and in the marketplace with things like the Olympics Torch Relay, NFL, NBA and the brand’s Nascar plans.
The role of agencies is still vital, but the story should be told better
The argument of whether or not agencies will always have a role seems one rife with folly. Though brands continue to chug away at building their own internal teams, agencies will have a role and they are far from ‘dying’. Both Clark and Cottrill recognize the unique abilities of agencies to serve many valuable purposes, especially being so close to the brand. When they are at their very best, talented agencies can unearth things that brands don’t necessarily see.
“At Converse, I had (the brand) about one inch from my face,” says Cottrill. “I was so close to the sneakers that we were making and the things that we were doing that I didn’t have context of some of the bigger, broader things that were going on. My agency’s responsibility was to pull my hand away so I could see that there’s more out there.”
And though the brief is one thing, what happens outside the brief can mark the difference between a very good agency and one that not only does breakthrough work, but retains and grows its roster.
“I’ve always appreciated agencies who have given me things that I didn’t ask for, that I didn’t know I needed, that forced me to think,” says Cottrill. “I had a number of agencies present things where I initially would say, ‘I didn’t ask for this’ or ‘Why would we do this?’ Then, 24 hours later, I saw that they had stretched my brain to think about something differently and I would inevitably call them back and say, ‘Well done, well played.’”
Today’s semantics are a consideration as well. In an effort to not appear stale or old-fashioned, a trend has emerged over the past few years of calling an agency something other than an agency. Collectives, cooperatives and partnerships dot the landscape. To Clark, it doesn’t matter what they’re called; what matters is what they bring to brands.
“There will always be a place for external parties to create ideas that move business,” she says. “‘Agency’ was born from a place where you were agent on the behalf of, and I very much feel that responsibility to our clients.”
Though great at telling someone else’s story, Clark points out that agencies are “so busy building the brands of our clients,” that agency brand building can be left behind. “I think it is part of making sure we protect and nurture this industry,” she adds.
An optimistic future
For both Clark and Cottrill, there is tremendous optimism — and neither came into their respective situations thinking that anything was wrong in the first place.
“I come here understanding that this place is not broken at all. The agency’s outstanding. It’s doing fine and was doing fine without me,” says Cottrill. “I don’t see myself coming in and making dramatic changes to alter the direction we’re going in. I do think I’ll come in and bring a different perspective, a consumer-first mentality. I understand how important the agency/client relationship is, having managed many agency relationships, but I want to always make sure that we’re focusing on delivering what’s best for the consumer.
“I’ve often said, even when I was a chief marketing officer, I might get to make the decisions about what creative gets run but ultimately the consumer decides whether or not what we did together is good or bad.”
Meanwhile, Clark wants to build on her agency’s heritage to attract and retain new talent.
“The strength of DDB obviously is its legacy and vibrant 60-plus year history. The ultimate metric for me is that we’ve got the best and brightest people in the industry. I want to be a magnet for talent. My hope a year from now would be that we’ve made some massive recruits, and got some great talent here — and from those recruits we’ve been able to attract some great business and do some great work, both for our existing clients and new clients.”
Up in Boston, Cottrill also distills success down to its essence.
“I want to help make this place one of the most fun and most creative companies in business,” he says. “I want this to be known as a creative company and I think we have amazing, creative people here. The business results will follow as a result of us continuing to push and continue to put out great, creative work into the marketplace with our clients.”
This feature was first published in The Drum's US print edition.