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The Drum

The eight essential circus characters in a modern marketing agency

In the agency world, every meeting is a Broadway show. Caricatures illustrated by Angela Ma.

Marketing, advertising and communications is a circus – a Neverland for misfits who get bored easily and love to torture themselves constantly with something challenging, seemingly random and shockingly new – basically, the raw ingredients of creativity and innovation.

In the agency world, every meeting is a Broadway show, every character has a part to play and the circus performance is always-on (long even after the curtains have fallen). This is true around the world from Singapore to Amsterdam, but especially in New York.

In 2018, I was seconded to New York City for one year as part of a Modern Marketing partnership between Ogilvy and the Singapore Economic Development Board. What I learned there went beyond strategic technique to observing diverse leadership styles, personal branding and the critical culture-building roles we own or step up to within the agency.

In Asia, our professional styles tend to be more fluid and understated, but in America – as many things American – it’s in your face. Yet, in a world where we advise our clients and brands to stand for something; and a dynamic workplace culture of more-than-robots is critical to attracting and retaining talent, why shouldn’t we be a crazy circus?

Here are eight essential characters – or caricatures – I’ve met across Singapore and New York that I’ve found make a dynamic modern marketing agency of the future. These characters can emerge from any kind of discipline or capability – from creative, CX, accounts, planning and finance – to build the living culture of the agency.

Take a read to see which one (or many) you think you are, which your mother knows you are and what you aspire to be:

The bullshit-rider

Every circus needs someone unafraid to jump on the run-away bull when things go off-course to steer it back on track.

From client requests without clear objectives or creative executions that don’t meet the brief, she or he will call out dramatically ‘this is bullshit!’ and hop on the bull as the rest of the table sighs with relief that someone finally voiced what they were all thinking but too afraid to say.

This daring powerhouse works best in corralling wayward briefs, questioning bottlenecks and shaking up stagnant projects or complacent teams, but caution: use with good intent only. Excessive use will make angry bulls angrier.

The problem cowboy

Unlike the bullshit-rider, the problem cowboy likes to lean moodily at the back of the meeting room with their hands in their pockets pretending not to listen. She or he doesn’t say much, but when they do, it’s a quick-draw of silver bullets baby.

With a knack for lassoing exactly the right problem with precisely the right insight, they wade through marketing jargon and contradictory points of view with ease to pinpoint what the real problem everyone should be solving is and articulates it in the simplest and gruffest no-nonsense way.

That’s the difference between order-making and order-taking. While the bullshit-rider calls bullshit, the problem cowboy prevents it in the first place by framing… the perfect problem.

The redtape acrobat

Every organization today and their grandmother wants to be ‘agile’, but only few are successful with managing wider structural and operational change. The redtape-acrobat first studies the ‘redtape’ that is tying the organization up – like laser beams in a bank vault – before deftly squeezing between the gates of the ivory tower to hack the system from the inside-out and unravel knots of inefficient processes with grace and tact.

They bravely protect their teams against the heavy chains of ‘but this isn’t how we do it here’ and ‘make permission’ for them to do things differently, quickly and freely so more innovative, experimental and jaw-dropping work can get out the door. Redtape-acrobats work better together.

A gathering of redtape-acrobats is called change.

The data magician

“Wow, how did you know that?!” The data magician doesn’t just make data appear out of thin air. She or he curates and manipulates different types of data together like wrestling a squeaky multi-colored balloon animal into meaningful segmentation, useful business and marketing strategy and deeply human insight.

They know the probability is just an illusion, but it’s like they can read minds and predict the future.

When a data magician and media magician meet to amplify creative content, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Precisely when you’re feeling down, discounted tickets to the circus land in your inbox. “Wait, how did they know?”

The prototype artist

Beyond just mobile apps, wireframes and websites, the prototype artist is obsessed with putting ANYTHING to the test.

Like a mad scientist tinkerer, she or he can cobble together scrappy real-life prototypes or lo-fi creative executions to prove that certain behavior change principles work; or to beta-test online and offline brand experiences.

Today, this is an especially-anticipated segment of the circus show as such pilots and prototypes help to de-risk things for clients and increase their confidence in new innovations and experimental ideas. It’s like watching the fire-eaters survive before applauding.

The customer clown

Customer clowns can be found everywhere across the building. They are the most empathetic ones of all. They are able to execute quick costume changes per every new brief and step into the diverse shoes of actual customers and end-users to role-play how they would react to stories and ideas in the real world.

They put in the extra effort to understand what makes people laugh or cry and help to channel their deepest hopes and fears to create compelling emotional creative work and brand experiences that matter.

Their big question always is, “but why would people care?” and they never let the agency or clients forget it.

The creative contortionist

Beyond TVCs, print ads and radio, there are so many different types of creative formats and channels today that only the creative contortionist would get excited – rather than bent out of shape – by the possibilities of experimenting with them all.

Podcast series? Social commerce? Choose-your-own-adventure product demo?

The contortionist knows that creativity can be squeezed from and therefore squeezed through all corners of the virtual and physical world. One idea? A thousand expansive ways to express it.

However, creative contortionists also know that all these tactics wouldn’t be as impressive or effective if they didn’t fit through one tight brief with a single-minded mission and come out the other side unscathed and magnificent.

The circus ringmaster

Finally, no circus could run without the ringmaster. She or he revels in making sense out of all the chaos we create. They wrangle the diverse characters and their unique skills to work together; integrates all their strengths; markets the freak show with flair and finesse; manages to grow the ticket sales and builds suspense for the work.

They have their ring-finger on what gets clients excited and intrigued and ushers them in through the front curtains into the ready-and-waiting magical world of true and modern creativity.

Some people are ultimate experts in being one of the eight and knows the value they’ll bring to every single project. For others, they can flex more naturally to embody multiple characters depending on the situation. Or did I trick you, and they’re all different parts of the same person?

Ultimately, if you are a problem-lassoing creative contortionist, that’s great – but make sure you find yourself a bullshit-riding redtape-acrobat to help you get your divergent and disruptive ideas actually made and out the door.

If your team has a customer-clowning prototype-artist, then have your data-magicked ringmaster to help convince clients with hard data that designing something together with real customers is the way to business success.

So which one(s) are you? Who are the people in your agency? Or which would you hire? If you can think of any other essential characters in today’s modern marketing circus or know someone who exactly reminds you of one, let us know.

Lynette Wong is a brand planner at Ogilvy Singapore. She strives to be a customer-clowning problem-cowboy and is on a personal mission to fight inequality and waste through education and sustainability.