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Kevin Chesters: Everything changes while everything remains the same

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective.

Kevin Chesters offers his views on the changing nature of the advertising industry that doesn't want to change

The Drum kindly asked if I’d write a monthly column in 2019. This will be first of a few on a reoccurring theme.

2019 marks my 24th year in this business. That means I’ve been doing adverts and stuff for longer than Jake Paul & Tom Holland have been on the planet. My godson drove me home from the pub this Xmas, so I’m probably right to feel a bit old.

It’s also got me thinking about the recent changes in ‘adland’. 2018 saw a lot of change, not least of all at my old place, WPP. There was the usual ocean of ink expended on the ‘death of this’ or ‘future is that’ from the so-called experts (I’m with Michael Gove for once when it comes to most of the ‘gurus’ of our industry, especially the new media ones – I’ve had enough of them). A raft of 2019 industry predictions were predictably published predicting everything for this year that they pretty much predicted would happen and didn’t in 2018.

So, I asked myself – as a theme - has everything changed unrecognisably in the communication industry over the last few years or does what has always worked still work in the modern communications landscape just with a slightly different set of media platforms and metrics?

As usual, the answer isn’t binary. For example, on my first morning in advertising in 1995 I read an article titled “Advertising is Dead” and I’ve pretty much been reading a version of that article once a fortnight ever since. The death of advertising has been greatly exaggerated if the number of column inches (and media spend) surrounding the 2018 Xmas TV adverts was anything to go by.

Clearly, a lot has changed (and keeps changing). There is the rise of trends like ‘in-housing’ with many predicting the inevitable demise of the traditional agency/client model as a result. There were the series of mergers and disappearance of famous names like JWT and Y&R. There are clearly many new models of engagement (not before time). There was the continuing ominous growth of consultants challenging the more traditional agency names. But there has also been a rather exciting growth of independents like WhoWotWhy and the rise of collective models (from Fawnbrake to Harbour).

But the biggest changes – certainly from ten years ago (let alone 1995) - were clearly the changes in media platforms and ways to engage consumers. Hyper-personalisation and the continued shift of media money to digital/social platforms that didn’t effectively exist a decade ago continued to dominate the headlines. Despite the clear/proven growth (and unarguable/transparent effectiveness) of platforms like TV and cinema you still can’t move for articles from the Business-Jesus types about how everything is dead apart from Facebook ads and Instagram influencers.

A lot has changed, yes. And will continue to change. And this old bloke, for one, thinks that’s a great thing as our industry has always been at its most creative in times of change. There is nothing more boring than those people who just want it to stay the way it was (and vocally moan about it). The issue with most big agencies (or big agency folk) is that they are just too wedded to the old models and ways of working to ever change even if they wanted to (mostly because of the way they are remunerated by global clients). Most big famous agencies are in trouble (or dead) because they want to look like they are adapting to the modern world whilst secretly praying that it will all go back to being like the good old days.

So yes, data has proliferated. Yes, media platforms have changed. Yes, we can hyper-target and we can get much more efficient in spending. All this is brilliant for clients and planners alike. But… my - possibly unwelcome - opinion is that the majority of the really important things in our industry have remained exactly as they always were.

After all, we are all still just people. We’re still emotionally led. Creativity is still king (the latest Nielsen data I saw said ‘creative’ represented 47% of the sales contribution of advertising compared to 11% for context & targeting.) The best and most successful of the ‘older’ agencies (W+K, Mother, Adam&EveDDB, VCCP) and the best and most successful of the ‘newer’ agencies (Lucky Generals, WhoWotWhy) are the ones, unsurprisingly, doing the best creative work. And they still seem to dominate with film content, regardless of the platform they play it on (Nothing Beats a LDNR, Rang-tan, Alexa Loses her Voice, etc).

But I think the things that have changed the least have been the things that make for strong, provocative, successful client/agency relationships.

It’s still all about people. People buy people. It is about finding the right people who share your values both inside your own organisation and with your clients. The best clients do the best work regardless of where they work, and the best agencies do the best work when they work with the best client individuals (not brands or organisations).

It’s still all about trust. You can work with all kinds of personalities, but you can’t work with liars. The best creative come from risk-taking and you’ll never take a risk with someone you don’t trust. Trust comes in many forms, but it is mostly about being able to be honest with your clients and with your agency as a client. Unfortunately, there still isn’t enough of it about which is why, I suspect, there is still a lot of crap work out there.

And those two things – people and trust - come together in finding a way of working that works for each individual client rather than a one-size-fits-all model. I think this is why the independents and the collectives are starting to get stronger because they’ll always be more adaptable and flexible.

So, if I was forced to come down on one side of the fence, I’d say that in most things that are important and that lead to commercial success things have stayed the same. I’m looking forward to exploring this theme more in 2019.

Kevin Chesters is the incoming partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective

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