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‘Chaos is always good for agencies’: San Francisco leaders on marketing’s future

The view from San Francisco’s agency leaders / Rémi Thorel via Unsplash

This piece was originally published last week, shortly before we heard about the death of industry legend and contributor to the piece, John Durham. Below, we asked friend Adam Kleinberg to say a few words about the man and his role in San Francisco agency life.

When The Drum reached out to San Francisco agency leaders to participate in this roundtable discussion a few weeks ago, there was no one more appropriate to invite than John Durham. Absolutely, no one has done more for the digital agency community in San Francisco—and the United States—than The Durham, as he was affectionately known by his friends throughout the industry. Today, our industry mourns. John Durham passed away in San Francisco on November 15.

John showed up on Zoom for this roundtable with this camera off. He shared his wisdom and ducked out early. I understand that he had surgery a few weeks ago—he was probably in his hospital bed when we had this call. Yet true to form, he wanted to contribute to his community so he made the effort. That’s John. He was one of the most charming and generous people I’ve ever met. He was a mentor to me and hundreds others. He was the glue of a community. I’m honored to have called him a friend. John, thank you for this contribution and so many thousands more. You will be dearly missed. You already are.

The Drum Network is growing its San Francisco chapter. To kick off a wave of activity in the Bay Area, head of the network Holly Hall and reporter Kendra Clark sat down with some of the West Coast’s best and brightest agency leaders. They spoke about what it’s like to lead an agency right now, the evolving role of agencies, and their unique vantage point from San Francisco.

Despite pandemic uncertainty, money has been changing hands at pace this year, with both M&A activity and IPO offerings for 2021 in the US set to break records (after a pretty big 2020). Unsurprisingly, a lot of that money has been flowing into Silicon Valley. As Jenny Sagstrom of Sköna says: “I’ve never seen so much activity. I’ve never seen so much money.”

But what’s true for tech giants and their investors isn’t true for everyone else. Other businesses, even in the tech ecosystem, are facing serious challenges, especially in finding and keeping workers. Marketing agencies in San Francisco – Silicon Valley’s neighbors and collaborators – are no exception.

The fight for talent

For Sagstrom, talent is the biggest concern facing agencies. “I can’t offer the same stock options that my clients are offering, so hiring good people when they can go in-house and make a fortune is difficult.” Traditionally, agencies have relied on a talent-luring tool we call ‘culture’ – enjoyable and relaxed working environments; soft perks such as food, drink and entertainment; and the promise of a fair work-life balance. But in many cases, physical workspaces are no more, and even big corporate employees are enjoying more flexible working.

The challenge, as Adam Kleinberg of Traction puts it, is “aligning the experience that clients need with the experience that talent wants.” Media Matters Worldwide’s Josy Amann can offer an interesting perspective: her business has been fully remote since creation in 2005. Her advice is straightforward: remote businesses can make their lives easier by hiring “people who love to work from home” – and then tailoring their offering to that preference.

Of course, not everyone works from home, and not every business will want to remain remote indefinitely. But every business, says Melissa Koonce of April Six, has an opportunity to grow by responding to diverse workers’ varied preferences. “Agencies have a real opportunity in this new environment [...] to lead with empathy, to hear from their people on a more regular cadence.” What’s important to each worker? Better wifi, maybe? The ability to pick up their kids from school? By listening and creating ‘alternate packages,’ agencies can still hope to compete.

A new kind of partnership

This new world of reconfigured relationships to work is a cause for real optimism for some. John Durham of Catalyst SF says: “It’s the most exciting and innovative time to be [working]. We’re balancing our lives right, we’re fostering incredible people to do incredible work, and they’re doing it at their pace, bringing smarter and better. I just think that this is an extraordinary time to be alive.”

A big part of this change for agencies is in how they relate to their clients. Telling a story of the early pandemic that will be familiar to many agency leaders, Kippen says that “there were a couple of quiet months then, all of a sudden, all of the calls were about, ‘what do we do? How do we rethink what we’re doing?’” Partners that would have instructed on marketing campaigns were suddenly turning to agencies for strategy projects, partnership and leadership.

This new kind of partnership is characterized by deeper integration and collaboration. “They ultimately want us to be a true extension of their internal team,” says Koonce. “They look to us to help them scale and deliver work efficiently at a global scale. That’s the value that we can bring.” Dave Rosenberg of GMR marketing agrees: the continued value of agencies lies in creativity and exploration. “We’re actually the ones that push innovation. Our clients are not ready for it yet. They want to do it, there’s no question, but most of them are not the risk takers in their own environments to push it.”

Reasons to be cheerful

For anyone worried about the role of agencies in a world of expanded in-house teams and a heightened fight over talent, David Kippen of Evviva Brands sounds a note of optimism: “Chaos is always good for agencies ([although] downturns aren’t). That’s where we add the most value because we’re not in the box looking through the keyhole through which [clients] have to see the world.”

Partners in Crime’s Stephen Goldblatt has his own source of optimism: in a world with more public oversight and awareness of the deleterious results of firms’ actions, “companies are required to be decent and good, whereas that was marketing’s job to spin things in the past,” which “makes our jobs easier, because all we have to do is talk about it.” So things may have changed, but there’s still good work to be done and good fun to be had: “It’s not the industry we grew up in, but it’s still pretty cool.”

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