Why I chose an independent agency over a network agency

Matthew Charlton is the CEO of Brothers and Sisters. He was a founder of BETC London, has run agencies in London, Amsterdam and the US and has worked on brands including Johnnie Walker, PlayStation and Sony Ericsson.

After leaving BETC I was very clear in my mind that I wanted to find a great independently owned ad agency in London to join. In the last three months I have spoken to both networks and independents and these conversations served to only clarify what I already knew.

Charlton, second left, with the Brothers and Sisters management team

I was lucky enough to be at BBH when they still owned the magic 51 per cent and were in essence 100 per cent independent of Leo Burnett, which owned the remaining 49 per cent. There was a very clear sense when you sat in the room with Nigel Bogle, John Bartle or John Hegarty that you were talking with THE decision makers. And what was agreed was what was agreed. There was no other chain of influence beyond that room. That clarity gave me and the agency the ability to be decisive and also to live the values of the agency rather than just talk about them, because those three people embraced all of the values they asked us to represent and were able to live them in front of us every day, unchallenged.

I remember very clearly a conversation with Nigel Bogle when I was running Johnnie Walker about some inter-office politics in the micro network and Nigel was very clear: “Do what is right for the brand, everything else including money is secondary.” In that one sentence the difference between being private and a PLC was loud and very clear. Be long term and be a real partner vs squeezing every inch of cash out of every quarter. The net result was that Johnnie Walker appreciated and loved us for this and felt they had a special network culture. Because they did, because of Nigel and John and John.

I subsequently moved to agencies fully owned by large global PLCs. They do many things well but for me those valuable lessons I learned at BBH did not always fit into that corporate landscape. There is nothing more frustrating than learning at the best agency in the world and then finding the majority of those lessons are undermined by a different culture.

You have to find the culture where you can truly best practice the best lessons of your career. For me that means independent ownership.

Then the really surprising news. There are right now hardly any decent sized, over 30 people, established independent agencies still left in London. Mother, Weiden + Kennedy, Brothers and Sisters, 101 and Albion. Hopefully Richard Exon at Joint is coming up fast as well.

In my view we need to cherish and admire these agencies and clients need to understand the true value of what it means to work with independent agencies. All the decision makers are in the room as well as people who can truly put the brand first because they don’t have an army full of other stakeholders – including multiple accountants – pressuring their decisions. If you talk to Robert Saville, Lawrence Green or my new partner Andy Fowler you just get that sense of confidence and direction which is otherwise hard to have and harder to sustain.

For me meeting the Brothers and Sisters guys and becoming the CEO there is an amazing opportunity as they have that confidence, clarity and ambition to be the agency of the future. They are truly independent and I know that all of the great lessons I learned at BBH will fit into their culture.

If you have never worked in a successful independently owned agency you should try and get into one. I just have again and already I am rejuvenated at the thought.

Matthew Charlton is the newly appointed CEO of Brothers and Sisters

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