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EU Referendum Brexit Advertising

Don’t blame Brexit for your troubles, it takes more than a bad referendum for an agency to fail

By Jamie Matthews

October 31, 2016 | 5 min read

WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell recently predicted that our departure from the EU will take the best part of a decade. It’s a sobering thought. However, while Brexit might keep owners of large multinationals up at night, its significance for smaller players has been overplayed. It takes more than a bad referendum for an agency to fail. External factors will always have an effect, but what’s going on inside your agency should come first.

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Don’t blame Brexit for your troubles

Whether it’s during recession, an economic boom or even wartime, the gears of technology never stop turning. But technology is out of our control. And generally something that has a lot of agencies playing catch-up. One way to stay on top of technology’s relentless march is to be mindful about what’s emerging abroad. And I don’t mean Europe; I mean Asia and the United States. Agencies would do well to ask themselves what could realistically be imported in two to three years’ time?

WeChat, that WhatsApp-beating Chinese smartphone app, is an obvious example. That’s why Facebook is scrambling to create something more far-reaching, by incorporating payment into Messenger. At the same time, it’s important to appreciate that the UK and rest of Europe are unique, and what’s big in Asia and the US might not necessarily be adopted here. Take QR codes: though hugely popular in China, they have failed to majorly take off in the UK.

The best approach is to instill agility right into the DNA of your agency. An ‘always on’ strategy helps here, ensuring agencies can constantly refresh, making changes as and when they need to be made. This way initiatives and changes that don’t work can be dropped out and replaced easily and quickly.

If your agency’s crying out for a major overhaul, go for it. Three years ago, Initials, the marketing agency I help run, tackled a period of slowed growth head-on. We’d fallen into a perilous cycle of ‘do for me’ projects – knocking on new prospects’ doors to secure short-term projects. By relying on new business, agencies risk focusing on the money as opposed to building relationships – a tension as relevant after Brexit as it was during the 2008 financial crisis.

Right now marketing budgets are up, but who’s to say how long the fat times will last? Economic fluctuation is inevitable and client relationships ought to hinge on the personal, which lasts far longer than the merely transactional. Uncertainty existed before Brexit and it should never affect how we do business.

Real change for us came when we hit pause and completely rethought the structure of our business. Blaming changing seasonal demand for sluggish growth means ignoring structural issues. The solution is to cultivate a unified team and ensure a clear vision is at the heart of your company.

Recessionary pressures will always play a part and we certainly struggled when we were out of pocket. But even if our debtors paid up straight away, it’s just another short-term fix. Again, it comes down to people over cash: as Gino Wickman explains in ‘Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business’, it’s about having the “right people in the right seats”. Having a plan is one thing, but for a company to really drive forward, your staff must have clearly defined responsibilities.

That’s why it’s essential to have the right people for the job. Implementing a reshuffle or at worst, removing the dead wood, can have far-reaching effects. But the priority must remain building up and nurturing the people inside your company. When you do this external factors become less relevant. The result is shared focus and that creates agency teams that are robust.

Looking to the future, for me agency success hinges on whether you are a network or an independent. For networks, having enough autonomy can allow you to behave like an independent agency. Otherwise the restriction can be challenging. For true independents the future is exciting. There’s no shortage of growth opportunities. But specialism and true expertise are more attractive than an agency that promises everything. So, exploit the niches: go as deep as you can, not as wide as you can. Embrace the changes that Brexit brings with it by figuring precisely what gap your agency can fill.

In agency land it pays to view economic instability as a fact of life. Undue hysteria only occurs when you lose sight of the important things: the people at the heart of your company, what your company stands for and ultimately, why you’ve started working with a client in the first place. If you look closely, the threat of external forces doesn’t add up. And for smaller companies, there are far more factors down to your own control that shape success.

Jamie Matthews is chief executive officer of Initials, you can follow him on Twitter at @jameson1969

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