‘The robots won’: how Plan A’s Essex and Carney look to re-humanize the agency model

Plan A's Andrew Essex and MT Carney talk about the federation they've built and how they look to humanize advertising / Plan A

Earlier this month, former Droga5 and Tribeca Enterprises chief Andrew Essex and Untitled Worldwide exec MT Carney announced the launch of their new advertising venture, Plan A.

The two cofounders spoke with The Drum on how Plan A came to be, how their individual experiences led to working together, and how they look to combat the larger holding group’s data rush.

“I think we have a pretty simple theory,” said Essex: “The robots won. Anything that can be automated will be automated; whether you like that or not, that part’s inevitable.

“The question becomes: what are human beings good at, circa 2018 and beyond?” Essex and Carney believe that by focusing on creativity, strategy, and relationships — in a way that relieves the pressures of overhead and highlights top-of-the-funnel tactic — would be the answer. “We want to be able to give clients a leaner and more senior solution, and give them assets that they can then plug into a performance marketing ecosystem.”

Plan A is made up of independent shops Van's General Store, Twin Studio, Beekman Social, and Untitled Worldwide, acts as more of a 'federation' than a true holding company.

MT Carney, who founded Untitled and also worked client-side as Disney’s chief marketer explains: “I don’t want to slight them all, but it’s really difficult to work with holding companies. They’re not as dynamic when it comes to getting work out quickly, they do bait and switch, and senior-level people tend to only show up at one or two meetings after initially meeting a client.”

As for boutiques, like the ones making up Plan A: “Boutiques are fun! They do a lot of interesting things, but they’re all so specialized. If they’re great at creative, they won’t be as good at strategy. So Andrew and I felt, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did actually deliver the kind of boutique-level service, but with the scale of something much larger?”

Essex, had known Carney from when she founded Naked Communications, “I always admired MT’s intellect and her energy, and Naked was really quite ahead of its time, in the sence that they were really about creative channel planning and brought context up in an original way. Context is just as important as content, to me.

“We’re like Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler,” Carney chimed in, “except he’s the Scarlett to my Rhett.” The two had tried to work together for years, with Essex saying each time, “I only want to work on something big, nothing small.”

Plan A isn’t necessarily a small company with the four shops that make it up, but

“To bring together a bunch of like-minded, truly creative agencies that are defined by their commitment to excellence — real best-of-breed players with a sense of strength in numbers — and it's very hard to go it alone.” He downplays the need to go for a scale play, instead accentuating beneficial partnerships. “It’s like the different cultures that thrive alongside each other in this country. The United States can somehow accomodate Texas and Maine and more for the better for it, and that’s the principle behind Plan A.

“Some holding company models just get willy-nilly with rolling up assets in a pursuit of larger and larger revenues, whereas this is really about bringing smart people together.”

Overindexing on hiring smart talent was a key focus for Essex and Carney, especially as the encroachment of Deloitte, Accenture, and other large consultancies continues to pull influence away from the major holding companies. Carney holds out some hope for the industry’s future.

“I think advertising keeps people in and employed,” She says, “not just in advertising but in manufacturing and hospitality, and for the millions of products that we sell products for. I think it can be a power for good.” She recalls her time running Naked, where her favorite part was training up the ‘diaspora’ of talent that walked through the door.

“Some of them ended up being really important ad people,” she adds, “and then some became fashion designers, cooks. bloggers, housewives—I don’t care, I’m proud of the influence that those people have in the world.”

As for the current state of talent in the industry? “When you talk to people, nobody wants to be here. More people want to be in finance, much less advertising. Everyone wants to work for management consultancies.” Carney’s belief is that there’s an opportunity to make people feel good about the industry they work in again. “If we’re going to attract really fantastic talent again, then we’re gonna have a really great time.”

Top talent, they believe, will help bring in a sense of ‘qualitative excellence’ that’s not bogged down by what they consider overreliance on data from larger companies and instead creates content — whether that be branded films, activations, or commercials — that adds value to consumers.

Plan A looks to make more announcements of new staff and business in the coming weeks, but looks to deliver results to match the shared ambition of ifs cofounders. “I know it sounds really grandiose and perhaps a little bit naive,” says Carney. but I think we can change the business. And I think if we changed the business, it can be for good.”

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