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Transformation Technology Future Vision

Talking with Sir Martin Sorrell on ‘the agency of the future’



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January 5, 2021 | 7 min read

It’s not every day that you get to chat to somebody worth over £360m, but if there’s one thing that this year has taught us, it’s that we are better connected than ever

It was a great opportunity to chat to Sir Martin Sorrell on Tuesday evening, a man who needs no introduction.

His worth is no secret either, and despite exiting his agency in 2018 at the age of 73, he started a new venture the very next day, and has continued to work at the forefront of digital. It’s not only rare to see founders continue to work post-sale after such a distinguished career, but also unusual for them to remain so grounded to the wider agency and business community.

So we were delighted to be able to join Sir Martin at one of the Alliance of Independent Agencies ‘GreenJam’ events, which are now of course entirely online. GreenJam events are aimed at agency professionals who are up to five years into their careers, and offers a platform to meet influential figures from various industries.

During this twilight talk, Sir Martin briefly addressed his career history, his exit from WPP and how he started his new group, S4Capital, before explaining the four fundamental principles that he has built this new business upon. We would recommend you watch the entire talk to get a full understanding of these pillars, but he’s a quick rundown on what we learned.

During this twilight talk, Sir Martin briefly addressed his career history, his exit from WPP and how he started his new group, S4Capital, before explaining the four fundamental principles that he has built this new business upon. We would recommend you watch the entire talk to get a full understanding of these pillars, but he’s a quick rundown on what we learned.

‘We are purely digital’

Quite simply, this is where the growth is. Digital is expected to grow by 20% worldwide in 2021. Of course, digital spend in 2020 was flat, and traditional media spend fell by 10-15%. But there are no signs of digital letting up, with an expected 70% marketshare by 2024.

‘The holy trinity model’

Sir Martin’s agency deeply value programmatic digital content built from first-party data. Whilst this is not necessarily a fresh approach for 2020, it is a huge shift from traditional and static advertising (such as newspaper ad or TV campaign). Broken down, this is really just a new era personalised content automatically served to you based on your digital activity. A great example being Netflix serving you a tailored synopsis of a series based on your interests.

Faster, better, cheaper

We’ve all seen the meme – you supposedly can’t have all three. But agile agencies, Sir Martin’s included, think differently. Agility (‘faster’) in a volatile world is important and will serve clients well. ‘Better’ really translates to ‘quality’ – the kind you would expect from businesses that are top of their game, eg: Samsung, LG, Xiaomi, Salesforce, Facebook. Whilst these businesses vary in the product or service, their strive for the ‘top spot’ and resilience to be undermined by other offerings is something that agencies should certainly try to echo. And finally, ‘cheaper’. A nice word for clients, but not necessarily for the agencies selling the service. There are two key messages here. The first, to be efficient as an agency in what is currently a very volatile market. And the second, to be increasingly careful with your clients’ money.

A unitary structure

This is a model that acknowledges the cannibalisation of some of your own brands but in a way that spurs growth for the business and increases marketshare. A unitary structure itself is one single P&L, which differs greatly to other models where the parent agency lists its owned agencies as numerous different verticals. In simpler terms, Sir Martin favours the unitary model for its unity, rather than a fragmented approach.

But what does this all mean? What does it all add up to? In Sir Martin’s view, it’s the new age advertising services model – a new era for agencies too, agencies that are intent on disrupting the traditional models used by the likes of Havas or Publicis.

The key takeaway here for us is that the ‘agency of the future’ is: purely digital, is technology-focused, utilises first-party data, finds smarter ways of presenting information (whether that’s ads, content or services), uses a ‘faster, better, cheaper’ approach, and all of this within a clear, unified structure where the business is the business.

Later in the talk, GreenJam opened up the session for questions from agency individuals including copywriters, marketing managers and account directors, putting forward topics such as award entries, acceptance of data sharing, and the skills required in a time of digital transformation (we were pleased to hear that ‘coding’ was top of Sir Martin’s list).

Our Senior Software Engineer, Steve Butler, put forward a question relating to Kyan’s rather unique 2020. Whilst it has been a challenging year for us as an agency, we are seeing positive growth as we enter a recruitment drive for a number of positions. Steve’s question was “What are the top three challenges for a [mature SME] agency going through a growth period?”

1) Winning ‘whoppers’
The ‘whoppers’ are those big and key clients. Clients where the success story isn’t necessarily “hey, we won the business” but more “how can we make this a great business relationship?” Much like S4Capital, we follow a model built on a number of smaller clients but also larger ‘key’ clients. One of which we’ve been working with for over 12 years.

2) Unitary branding
This was an interesting point, as it wasn’t branding in a traditional sense, but more a focus on integration throughout the business. Following that unitary approach to any brands or sub-brands, ensuring there is diversity across the business, and operating ‘as one’.

3) Expansion
In Sir Martin’s view, organic growth is the way to go. Don’t rest on your laurels, and if you’ve had a particularly strong period of growth, work together as a team, no matter how large or small, and keep the momentum going.

And that’s a really nice segway into our takeaway from all of this and how it echoes future plans for Kyan. It’s reassuring to hear that coding is seen as a must-have skill in any digital agency. Coding is of course our bread and butter, with over half of our agency being front-end or software engineers. It’s also clear that winning and servicing the ‘whoppers’ is fundamentally important, but it’s more about the work produced and the relationships built rather than just celebrating the win or coveting the award trophy.

And finally, if not most importantly, 2021 will be a key year to widen the definition of creativity no matter what your agency does. Creativity isn’t limited to brand and advertising. As a technology agency with a busy and productive design team, we understand the value in marrying great design with a strong technology product or service, and delivering products that break apart from the status quo and challenge everything else in the channel.

We’d like to say a big thank you to the Alliance of Independent Agencies for putting together this event, and to Sir Martin Sorrell for taking the time to speak with us. Also, special thanks to Steve, our superstar software engineer.

You can watch the full event on YouTube.

We are Kyan, a technology company powered by people.

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