Finding success in a tumultuous marketing world

Carter Murray is the worldwide chief executive officer of FCB, an IPG-owned, global, fully integrated marketing communications company with more than 8,000 people in 109 operations across 80 countries.

There are a lot of critical questions and talking points in our industry right now. What is the impact of WPP chief Martin Sorrell’s departure? Do you agree with Marc Pritchard’s comments about the state of the agency world? How do you manage creativity with the forces of data and tech? What is the role of creativity?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I have been listening to a lot of smart people whom I work with and respect in the industry, and I am always trying to blend that in with my own personal experiences. For a client looking to get real success from an agency partnership, and for an agency looking for sustained success, here are four commitments that I believe drastically increase the odds of success:

1. Commit to building a REAL creative culture in your organization

I am not talking about this in a superficial, glib, corporate sense. Indeed, if you walk into an agency or a client office that has “Culture Matters” or something similar written on the wall, it normally means they don’t have it.

And I am certainly not talking about one team or “teams of the future” where holding companies pluck people from different advertising agencies and slam them together to work for a client. It may be a quick, easy, efficiency sell, but one that doesn’t ultimately foster great creativity or results. This is a fundamental issue because clients want a team working on their business who think differently, who think creatively.

A great creative culture is one where talented people feel that they belong to a place founded and thriving on a sense of purpose, and where everyone wants to learn from each other every day. Where tech talent, creative talent, account teams, planning teams, UX teams, etc are all pushed to think and dream and produce better. Where there is a track record for great thinking, and that sets the standard. Where people work together so well that they can finish each other’s sentences and thoughts. It’s something incredibly hard to build as an office, even harder as a network and doubly hard again to sustain.

2. Be the most curious person in the room

There is an executive I know who, despite some success, has often failed to get traction with many around him—client and agency colleagues alike. The overwhelming feedback that I hear about him is, “He has to be the smartest person in the room.” Attempting to be the smartest person in the room is such an achilles heel for an individual, a team and, moreover, an organization.

Adam Bryant, who was, for a long time, the journalist behind the New York Times “Corner Office” feature, having interviewed hundreds of leaders from across industries, talks often about one common thread among them: They all had “applied curiosity.” In an ever-changing world, the need for agencies— and clients, too— to be full of deeply curious, inquisitive people from top to bottom has never been so important.

In trying to answer the big questions of the day—how to build brands in a data-rich world, how to win in a fragmented media landscape and how to be more agile—the teams and agencies that will be the most successful will be those that are full of curious people.

To be clear, I think one should always bring a solid POV to the table, but more important is to then always be open to the fact that your POV might be made stronger with new learnings and new insight.

3. Recommit, in spirit and in action, to a philosophy of #TalentAboveAllElse

It sounds so obvious, but it’s so hard to really live and breathe this and get this right, especially in a scaled organization and in public companies driven by quarterly results and hostile investors standing at the gates of some clients and agencies. The irony is that in a business where people are the business, focusing on talent is fundamental to sustaining long-term business performance.

Some holding companies, I think, have just simply given up. As a distraction, they put out hollow messages of a renewed “focus on clients” (everyone is focused on clients) or again “future-proof our business” (talk about marketing jargon). I live in hope that clients see through this “cheap suit sale” and that we can reinstitute some integrity into our industry, as well as the talent and creativity that makes it great.

Tiptop, well-looked-after and motivated talent will always take the best care of both the creative product and the client. It’s the chicken and egg all over again, and we too often get it wrong.

If you obsess on talent, then it becomes immediately obvious when you have issues in not just the makeup of your business in terms of diversity—gender balance, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community—but also that you may not have the right culture AND infrastructure to allow talent to feel welcomed. Talent needs to feel welcomed in order to thrive, no matter what their personal background.

It keeps me up at night knowing that, with 8,000 people in our network, we have not got it right yet, but I do know that obsessing about talent means that we are at least making progress. I just wish it were faster, and I am committed to constantly learning and improving.

4. Know the fundamentals of marketing, and then trust your gut.

One debate that drives me absolutely bonkers is the one about brand building versus marketing in a digital and data age. The two are not separate. For great advertising, the two MUST both be present.

With the new channels, technologies and data opportunities of today, it has never been more important to get the foundation of a brand right. We believe so strongly in it at FCB that we have created a modern version of a brand-positioning methodology called “Brand Bedrock” that we implement across all brands we work on. Doing something like this is fundamental.

Before talking about an ad, PR, events, social media campaigns, e-commerce activities, sales promotions, new products, a company or a brand—or whatever it may be—all account members must know what it stands for at its core. They should also know their purpose as a business, their competitors and what their true values are, as well as who they are and are not, BEFORE producing any marketing activity and creative content on any channel.

When I look at the agencies and clients I most admire, they bring all four actions seamlessly together—commitment to building a real creative culture and identity, curiosity and an unwavering pledge to talent and the fundamentals of marketing. They are always learning every day and weaving new thinking, technologies and inspiration into what they do. The best talent in the industry is there and motivated, and everyone involved understands the fundamentals of what we do whilst embracing the new—and from all this, delivers world-class product. It all sounds rather easy, no? But gosh it’s not!

Creative culture matters.

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