O2 has a ‘referee’ to mediate its unified creative and media hub

O2 is clearly confident in the refreshed structure / O2

Merging different, competing, agencies into one team throws up the same problem time and again – how to manage priorities, P&Ls and egos. O2’s solution comes in the form of a full-time referee.

It’s been just over 18 months since O2 united planning talent from its different agencies into a single proposition. Dubbed a 'planning hub,' the brand claims it has resulted in better marketing, but has conceded that bringing different P&Ls under the same roof has called for an impartial “referee”.

Since 2017 planners from its creative, media, CRM and PR agencies – VCCP, Havas, Lida and Hope & Glory respectively – have been co-locating for three-days a week. VCCP hosts in its London space and this time was carved out as a way to better collaborate on responses to O2 briefs.

But, as O2's head of creative and media, Simon Valcarcel explained, there were some initial “teething problems” with the model.

“Clearly VCCP had a different point of view on planning to Havas, to Lida,” he said at an IAB event on Wednesday (24 October) adding that O2 installed a “referee” to herd the many voices in the room. This umpire comes in the form of Alison Meredith, who cut her teeth both client and agency side, serving as head of marketing at Direct Line in the 90s and then in planning roles at Proximity London, Rapier and WPN.

Meredith joined O2 in 2016 with the somewhat unconventional LinkedIn title of 'head of strategy and planning for O2 and head of inter-agency O2 planning hub for VCCP, Havas and Lida.' In essence, though employed by O2 as head of planning, she is there to represent both the brand and its agencies equally, and impartially; acting as the conduit.

“If [the agencies] can’t agree and then they come and present to us, what’s the point in presenting?” said Valcarcel of the key role Meredith plays in mediating the “good debate” that goes among the agencies

“You do need someone to kind of ‘ça roule’ [the agencies] so she’s still in that [referee] role,” Valcarcel told The Drum.

Among the creative iterations that have benefited from the collaboration are O2's 'Follow the Rabbit' campaign its 'Ooops' screen replacement ads and its new 'Breathe it All In' proposition.

'Bigger, better and more integrated'

Where Valcarcel is candid about the challenges that come with merging not only disciplines, but also talent, from rivals holding companies he is confident in the refreshed structure – “I don’t know why we didn’t do it sooner,” he said.

O2 is among a slew of brands to re-invent legacy agency models. Both P&G and Unilever have been experimenting with merging creative from different agencies, though none have brought media into the fold.

Last month, however, Renualt's Bastien Schupp, the auto group’s vice-president for global brand strategy and marketing told The Drum it was readying a new agency model that would see its media and creative shops, Omnicom’s OMD and Publicis respectively, “merged” into one.

Where O2's collaborative model is focused on planning, Renualt's will reflect a broader host of disciplines: “I don't want to have to discuss with the creative and the media separately. I want one agency that brings content, media, data and the client around one table,” Schupp explained.

Valcarcel said O2’s hub was initially set up to make its output “bigger, better and more integrated”. He added that breaking down partitions also offered a solution to an issue the advertiser faced under a previous, more disjointed structure: the difficulty in getting external partners to reach a consensus on campaigns with a short-lead time.

While he didn’t go into financials, Valcarcel was adamant that when it comes to creativity and timescales O2’s play has paid off, because “using all the best of its agencies” has made the process “quicker, more strategic and more integrated”.

Though he insisted the quality of the concepts pitched by agencies was already “brilliant” he said they’ve improved further. In part, he said, this is due to the hub working more closely with O2’s internal planning and strategy team, helping write the briefs themselves as well as a more coherent post-brief process.

“The thing that I love is that there is a planning lead for each campaign, sometimes it's [someone from] Havas, sometimes its VCCP, sometimes it's Lida. It depends on the brief and what makes sense but there is a lead planner that collates everything.

“For me, as a client being presented to, [brief] responses have just gone from being brilliant to [us] almost not [having to] debate them.”

Though Renualt has suggested, that for its brand, bringing media and creative together will result in the challenge of implementing "joint objectives" and KPIs, this isn't something O2 is worried about. Valcarcel explained that the brand's agency partners have already been working to the same KPIs as its marketing department for some time.

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