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Can indy agencies benefit from behaving like the networks? Harbour Collective thinks so


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

June 18, 2018 | 6 min read

Independent agencies can benefit from the unity, resource pooling and commonalities that arise in the agency networks – without being in one. This is the belief of Paul Hammersley, founder and chief executive of Harbour Collective, a growing group of indy agencies looking to compete against the industry behemoths.

Paul Hammersley of Harbour

Paul Hammersley of Harbour Collective

Hammersley is under the belief that he can replicate the network benefits he saw and helped develop at DDB and Lowe New York earlier in his career. He says there is a growing hunger for his collective, noting that few of the thousands of indy agencies out there will actually get bought up by a network. Instead, he urges, they must embrace a solution that helps them compete against the larger competitors that can bring 'full service' to the pitching table.

“We have a way of helping independent agencies connect better in a way the holding companies are doing. They can find new routes to market and to help clients access new talent that exists across independent specialist agencies.”

Just the other day, the one year anniversary of the group came and went, marked for Hammersley by an abrupt LinkedIn notification. In that time, he has been hard at work building the proposition from six to 11 core agencies, and delivering an extended network for smaller, or more niche services.

Hammersley believes indy agencies can mimic the modus operandi he found at Omnicom’s DDB in 2004, the “magical” – as he put it – 'people/product/profit'. He explained: “The notion was, that if you get the right people, look after them, train them, develop them and reward them, you will develop good product and ‘should’ make a profit. That central way developing a client facing marketing service business is intuitive to most entrepreneurs and most who run indy agencies.”

The dichotomy shifts when looking at the big networks, in his opinion. “They start with ‘how much money do we need to generate for our shareholders?’ and then it is 'how do we cut the cloth to get that money?'. That may mean undermining the creative, or strategy, or management of human capital.”

While he pursues the benefits of the collective, he is keen to avoid the inherent pitfalls of the networks. “There is too much bureaucracy, too many layers of management, too many channels of approval. Decision-making is taken out of the hands of the people who are informed enough. You hear the stories about people trying to get tiny budgets approved, they have to fly to London, or New York or Paris, for a decision about hundreds of pounds worth of equipment. There is a uniform way of managing big businesses which means that companies are not able to respond to the needs of the clients.”

Part of this comes down to the silos that have erected walls between talent. An issue that may have contributed to WPP in particular announcing that its annual revenue was down by 3.4% at its latest AGM last week. Hammersley blamed this slump on in-fighting among WPP’s “competitive businesses”.

He said: “While I wouldn’t want to be there, I applaud what Publicis is trying to do by breaking down these silos and dealing with the consequences so there is one big block of 80,000 people working for Publicis. They will lose a lot of talent and clients through it but at least they are trying."

Why join a collective?

Hammersley boasted that Harbour “brings together teams across different agencies to provide joined up thinking and execution for clients – something that is clearly that is wanted and needed by clients… they can't afford to have 15 agency relationships.” Furthermore, members can benefit from the shared knowledge, reduced infrastructure costs across insurance, IT, HR and group-wide training – things that may be scarce at smaller agencies.

For a reportedly “small” membership fee and some effort to “commit time” to the group, agencies of select skillsets can join, and throw in their capabilities for client pitches and the resulting campaigns. They can also join the extended network.

Harbour Extended Network

Detaling how this worked in a recent pitch, Hammersley explained: “The client said ‘here is our budget, we don't know what the right channels are’. We put together a team from a media agency, a PR agency, a social agency and an ad agency and worked together as one team for a four week period. It was as joined up a presentation as I have ever seen.”

He noted that by combining the talents, the client was not being pitched a series of ads, or media, or social activations, or whatever is the strength of the agency. “We asked ‘how are we going to reach this audience?’ We came to the table with a combination of paid-for ads, influencer marketing, PR and social content." On the other hand, he also pointed to a more conventional pitch for a babycare brand where a lead agency worked with two partners in the group to deliver the client's requested capabilities.

During the interview, it was revealed that Outra, the data business led by Simon Hay, ex-chief executive of Dunnhumby, had just joined the collective.

Looking ahead, Hammersley noted that his real difficulty will be in helping clients get their heads around the new model he is touting. With most of the holding companies refining their propositions, there will be no shortage of competition.

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