Why I quit the agency I founded and think it's time for a mind shift in marketing
Last year, Pete Martin resigned from the agency he founded, but why? Here, he recounts his personal and business reasons for quitting – from client discontent to the content revolution. He argues that it’s time not just for a new kind of agency, but for a mind shift in marketing.
I resigned from my old agency last June. They only recently removed me from their website. So when contacts got in touch, I had to tell them I’m not there any more. They’re surprised, maybe shocked. They want to know why I quit. Why did I leave the business I’d originally founded, and where I’d been creative director on both sides of the Atlantic for a couple of decades? For what? To do what?
Since I’ve said nothing in public, a few folk assume there’s some great secret. There isn’t – other than the great Venn diagram of life where personal experience and business thinking suddenly overlap.
Many of us feel there was something peculiarly rank and bitter about the year 2016. As famous icons fell to the grim reaper, there was a rise in dog-whistle politics and, in business, the environment remained stodgy at best. At a personal level too, 2016 got off to a grim start.
Hanging out at Death & Co.
In the latter weeks of 2015, I’d holidayed in Sri Lanka. It’s a beautiful fertile place, the teardrop of India, steeped in ancient Buddhist and Hindu culture. We journeyed round the coast to the old fort town of Galle, and stayed at The Last House, a lovely beach front villa designed by famed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, before heading into the cultural heartland of Kandy.
My dad was stationed there with the RAF during World War II. He’d often told me about how he’d wandered off from the jungle airstrip and chanced upon a massive rock. A rickety iron ladder snaked up and round the rock face. My Dad climbed it and found caves with ancient erotic paintings and, at the summit, a ruined palace. So, there I was 80 years later atop this mini-mountain, literally following in my father’s footsteps. Looking out over the same lush plains, you could imagine the natural riches which funded this pleasure dome, and eventually drew invaders from India who drove the fun-loving rulers south for safety.
Not that my dad would have known much back then about Sigiriya Rock or the dynasty who fortified it. He was just a teenager with a tough upbringing in Glasgow. (About 10 years ago, I made a short, sweet film about his boyhood in Depression-era Glasgow, amusingly cast with many well-kent Scottish marketing folk.) In the ensuing decades, the lad grew up and eventually become a great grandad, in every sense.
But when I got back from Sri Lanka, it was obvious my dad wasn’t well. Talking to him about the trip, his mind kept circling the same old stories. Especially about a beautiful young Sinhalese convent school teacher he’d met at a tea dance in the port of Trincomalee. After sailors started fighting in the dancehall, chaos descended. Dad rescued the girl from the brawling and took her home in a rickshaw. Like a scene from South Pacific, it could have been ‘happy happy talk’ ever after if his squadron had not been summarily shipped out of Ceylon. (Fortunately for me and my family.)
At the turn of the year I was due in New York. So, in the week that Bowie died, I found myself sinking a couple at Death & Co., the Lower East Side cocktail joint, and caught the last public performance of Bowie’s stage show, Lazarus. Two days after I got back from New York, my dad passed away.
Re-evaluating your life
You always know you’ll be an orphan one day, but nothing quite steels you for the feeling. Somewhere between finally, grudgingly, being the grown-up and still feeling like a kid, abandoned at a bus stop. As the numbness recedes, you’re left looking up the road, you hope, with a clearer view of your life.
I wasn’t sure I liked mine. At least the working part of it, I felt, wasn’t working.
I’d inherited some workaholic tendencies from my dad. I quite like a bit of hard graft and the ad business has been very good to me. My mate Rob and I started an agency called SMARTS in the 90s. We were one of the first agencies to integrate advertising, digital and PR. We rode the cycle up and had a lot of laughs before successfully selling to a plc.
To my own surprise, I had stayed committed to the agency, and to my clients and colleagues who I counted as friends. I’d done a stint in New York but, back in the UK, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, as Shakespeare put it, there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark”.
Change gonna come
I’d previously had a discussion with the group CEO and told him that I felt the agency model just wasn’t working – for clients or creatives. He’s a smart guy with good intentions and far too much on his plate. Nothing changed. If you’ve ever sold out to, or simply worked for, one of these marketing services groups, you’ll know that they bring little to the party for the individual agencies. When the going’s good, they suck the money out. When times are tough, they want to throw the talent out. When you take a step back, you might form the view that such spreadsheet-itis simply creates a stressful, destabilised, under-invested business norm that does zip for product quality, client service or career development.
Around that time, by chance, I bumped into Ella Saltmarshe of the Comms Lab who’d surveyed the London ad scene. Her report 'Reclaiming Agency' painted a picture of creative agencies unmoored from principle, drifting and bobbing in the wake of major clients’ turn towards ‘profit from purpose’. It didn’t make for cheery reading.
I also had a chat with the new head of creative industries at Creative Scotland, Clive Gillman, who hosted a get-together of agency heads. Despite some varying views, the common thread was that the traditional agency scene was, in many ways, unwinding.
Through Graeme Atha at the Marketing Society, I spoke with senior marketing folk. The same themes emerged. The classic agency model was increasingly considered unfit for purpose: too slow, too cumbersome, too costly for the outputs and effects – and with some serious misgivings about the subjective, ‘old hat’ underpinnings of agency philosophies.
The conservatism of agencies has always surprised me. Except for the dawn of the media independents in the late 80s, and the relentless rise of ‘the internet, stupid’, the underlying mindset of the agency business hasn’t really changed since the mid-60s. That’s when Stanley Pollitt of Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) invented account planning – a crazy idea that the voice of the customer might be important in forming communications strategies.
Sure, these days the approach may be more like ‘the voice of the planner’ – a breed even less like the average customer than art directors. But it still shows how disconnected the classic agency has become from the big trends of the past two decades, never mind the past two years.
So, we can all see the problems, I think.
It’s for this kind of situation that the International Futures Forum invented the term ‘the conceptual emergency’. What do you do when you have no idea what to do? Studies of people who find themselves in bad situations – accidents, plane crashes, ship wrecks, getting lost in the wilderness, failing business models – suggest that those who do nothing tend to perish. “Rule one for survivors: abandon all hope of rescue.”
The solution is to do something. Anything. In my experience, when you do something, things start to happen. Often not what you expect to happen, but usually better.
Naturally, it’s tempting to stay put. You’re not likely to snuff it in an agency, at least not since we took away the Spraymount booths. However, in the old model – whether you’re an overpaid boss or an unpaid intern – keeping your nose to the grindstone is only going to get you a flat nose. And, in a short life, there’s no real future or fun in it.
So, as Peter Gabriel sang, ‘keeping silence, I resigned; my friends would think I was a nut.”
The future of marketing
The question remains: for the future of marketing, what is the way forward?
I’ve spoken to a number of different agencies, all grappling with the same problems and trying divergent solutions – in-sourcing talent to clients; out-sourcing work to freelancers; building soft networks; parading phantom staff and fictional services; devising ever-more absurd job titles…
Though reports of the death of ‘advertising’ have been greatly exaggerated, there are two things which do seem to be past their sell-by date. The first is the 30 second commercial. In years to comes, I’m sure these tiny, perfectly confected collectors’ items will seem as strange as the fashion for miniature portraits in the 19th century. In an increasingly over-provided, choose-to-view world, it’s hard to believe that audiences will willingly watch traditional ad-school creativity. Sure, there will be some profit in it while it lasts: the last man to make good cartwheels must have made a fortune.
The second health hazard for agencies is probably traditional ‘insight’ planning. Like many creatives, I’m naturally suspicious of focus groups. Obviously, the process can be tainted by the observer effect. But it’s genuinely hamstrung by the presumption that expressed logic and ‘what people say’ is a great predictor of what people feel or actually do.
More generally though, you wonder about the role of the traditional planner. As the Adweak Twitter feed recently joked: “BREAKING: After A Couple Hours Of Google Research, Childless 25-Year-Old Junior Planner Suddenly Expert On Mom Demographic”
After all the huffing, puffing and posturing, the outputs rarely seem to justify the time and expense. It’s easy to laugh at lame, leftfield or simply idiotic premises like ‘I am train’ – soon abandoned as the client veers from unworkable insight to unlovable offers. But even a well-orchestrated process to validate a big, one-hit, shit-or-bust solution seems at odds with contemporary rapid prototyping and minimum-viable-product testing.
Predicting consumer behaviour
Perhaps the deeper challenge for insight work is the weakness of its predictive power. Even expressed in Net Promoter Scores (NPS), intentionality only accounts for 1% of actual consumer behaviour.
I’ve been talking with Christopher Brooks of Lexden Customer Experience Consultants about genuine measures of behaviour. Exclusively in the UK, Lexden has access to EXQ, the system built from decades of real customer data by Prof Dr Phil Klaus.
Across a wide range of industries, EXQ analyses 25 key parameters which impact customer behaviour. As in the old 80:20 rule, you find that the four or five factors that matter most to your customers account for the vast majority of behaviour. This creates opportunities for marketers in two ways. First, there’s the chance to focus on what really matters to customers and determines their purchasing pattern. And, second, you can stop wasting money on things which have little impact on customer behaviour or share of category, and which actually reduce profitability.
Of course, a revolution in marketing services depends on a change in systems thinking which presupposes a change in the agencies’ inner world. It’s not hard to see how the power pyramid of the classical ad agency perfectly expressed the middle-class aspirations of the post-war period. But the shape – and its lack of efficiency and openness – are ill-adapted to the post-modern era. But, in the ideas of organisational theorists like Frederic Laloux or the system of Holacracy, you can see the kind of systems evolution which leaves agencies looking like dinosaurs.
That’s why I believe we need a mindshift in marketing. The time is right for a breakthrough model in creative communications – which matches rapid, low-investment ideation with reliable predictors of consumer behaviour and purchasing, share of category and profitability.
So, what next? Let’s wait and see. As my pal professor Phil Hanlon used to say, “The future is emergent.”