Freelance networks, data-based pay: General Mills CMO envisions the agency of the future

Pollard spoke at Advertising Week New York

A small core team, outsourced administrative functions and a data-informed value-based remuneration model are just some of the traits that will form the successful agency of the future, claimed the chief marketing officer of General Mills.

Ivan Pollard, who took the top marketing job in 2017 at the FMCG firm, said he believed clients’ refinement of roles should encourage current and future shops to also update the model of a “business called an agency”, in order to best serve advertisers and make money in the process.

Pollard envisioned the qualities of this future model in an on-stage thought experiment with former colleague Jon Wilkins, managing director of Accenture Interactive’s Karmarama. Among a smattering of “old fart” jokes, he arrived at the following attributes:

A strong, experienced leader

There may be a raft of twenty-something founders forging their way in the industry (and a number of AIs being touted as potential creative chiefs) but Pollard still believes solid experience will be crucial agencies in the future. As a client, he will always look for an agency chief that has proven themselves to be a “trusted business partner” in the past.

“I would turn to the people who have been there and done it before,” he said. “And not just ‘it’, ... but ‘it’ in a way that fits the trends of where marketing is going. [I want] someone that's constantly been able to reinvent themselves, taken on new things and added them to what she's already got... Someone with an experience of the old world but someone who is open to embracing the possibilities of the new.

“But the most important thing is being able to lay down the things that are no longer relevant or useful.”

Pollard cited the leadership styles of Wieden+Kennedy’s Dan Wieden, DDB’s Wendy Clark and Publicis’ Carla Serrano as the kind that will thrive in the future.

A strategy-led, creatively-driven core

The point of an agency, Pollard argues, is to offer an external voice on business challenges and solutions in the form of strategic planning. That’s why he believes the agency of the future will be led by a “strong strategic function that helps the client make valuable, enduring choices”.

This will be supported by “great creative minds” who bring those solutions to life. These two functions, along with that visionary leader, will make up a “core team of idea leaders” that runs the agency.

As for the rest of the talent who fill today's agencies. They can orbit the business as freelancers or contractors. Pollard imagines the core will be supported not by staffers but by a much bigger “distributed network of brilliant experts” that dip in and out on a project-by-project basis.

“That could be other agencies or other individuals – whether you need [expertise in] data analytics or user experience design or industrial design or... in-store marketing or e-commerce marketing,” he explained. “You would connect out to that network of people who can do the things you cannot do but you know strategically need to get done.”

Pollard believes talent will drive this shift as much as business does, citing America’s growing gig economy as proof workers are no longer necessarily looking for “the structure of an old-fashioned agency”.

Finally, the chief marketer believes the bulk of the administrative functions that keep an agency running will be outsourced in the future. That includes finance, legal and daily HR processes, as well as media buying and the agency’s own communications.

More machines, please

We’ve yet to see an AI demonstrate it can effectively write a TV ad, however Pollard believes it’s the agencies that don’t give up on the tech that will succeed. He predicts AI will better be used to more effectively “describe the problem” the client is trying to solve, rather than be pushed to “prescribe the solution”.

“I still believe we need humans to take that mental leap that takes that to a creative idea,” he said, “but then let's assume those [creative ideas] could get taken back and judged by machine learning.

“A machine could decide which is best, maybe more than the dumb client trying to pretend like we know [which is best]. Maybe we'll be replaced by machines. But I'm sure we're going to keep exploring.”

A data-driven remuneration system

Machine learning could also help remuneration models get smarter, argues Pollard. The marketer noted he and his CPG peers have “taken quite a bit of flak” for their approach to agency payment terms in the past, but still believes the “old model of value-based compensation is still the right one” – and a "fair" one – to use.

“I wonder why we're not applying data and analytics to understand the value that gets created by an agency's strategic or creative thinking,” he said. “You need really good data and analytics to determine what slice of the incremental value created needs to go back to the agency.”

Pollard added that be investing in such data practices, the agency of the future could get better at monitoring the brand-building value it creates over time – an important issue as the industry swings “more towards performance marketing”.

“Agencies should make money and I think clients want to be super clear about how they're making that money and reward them proportionately,” he said. “But ... you've got to partner with a client and help and compete in both new spaces and old spaces.”

Pollard was speaking at Advertising Week New York

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