Advertising must reimagine itself – Nigel Vaz's IPA president's speech in full

New IPA president Nigel Vaz. Photo: Bronac McNeill.

New IPA president Nigel Vaz has used his inaugural address to call on the advertising industry to transform itself. Here we bring you his speech in full.

It’s a very great honour to have been elected as IPA president. It was also a surprise. I (and I expect some of you in this room would share this view) never anticipated being the person who would take up this role. Although Publicis Groupe is an established IPA member and I have spent many years serving on IPA Council, I do not come from the agency world – unlike my predecessors in this role.

I would first like to thank and pay tribute to our outgoing president – Sarah Golding. Two years ago Sarah stood on this stage and courageously unveiled an agenda she wanted us to explore and to better understand.

‘The Magic and The Machines’ has been a great success – a learning agenda that has set the IPA and its member agencies on the path we need to be taking, and an agenda that has helped to educate and inspire both the IPA Council and the wider IPA membership on the creative and business possibilities that technology and data opens up.

Sarah comes from the world of advertising, yet chose to make the creative application of technology the theme of her presidential agenda. Before her, Tom Knox – who I’m sure won’t mind me saying is, to look at him, not the first person you would immediately associate with diversity – made that important subject the core of his IPA presidency.

There is something of a recent pattern emerging for IPA presidents to unveil agendas that do not necessarily reflect what they know well – but rather what they know to be important.

It’s a pattern that quite naturally leads to me – an Indian-American and the first IPA president with a background in technology – standing here today addressing you on the future of UK advertising and its place in the world, on how the UK is the natural home of global creativity and innovation, and how it will continue to be a creative and commercial beacon in a changing world.

In writing about my nomination for IPA president, Campaign described me as a “serious man for a more serious age”. I hope they meant that in a nice way, because our age looks to be seriously chaotic, challenging and occasionally brutal.

While the staff bolt all the doors so that you can’t leave, I’d like to talk to you a little bit about Brexit. And, again, I must thank Tom and Sarah for handing on the IPA baton at such an enviable time. I have the dubious pleasure of taking over the IPA presidency at a time when the UK is leaving the EU. Or is not leaving the EU. But definitely one of the two. At some point in the next six months. Or maybe never.

It has been a long, perplexing and sometimes uncomfortable three years since the 2016 referendum. If that result told us anything, it is that geopolitical and economic uncertainty is on our doorstep. The UK advertising industry – and our creative industries in general – are a jewel in the UK’s crown and rightly and globally famed for the creative and commercial impact that they make. As we tease out new trading relationships with our EU and global partners, our industry and our agencies will have to carve out a new future in a new economic landscape.

In our own industry, we see that the value of creativity is in question. Our ability to make money is constrained, as is our ability to reinvest. Some clients perceive there is limited value delivered by us, to them. Procurement continues to own many of the client-agency relationships – at least on a contractual level. In-housing is a growing trend, publicly celebrated by major clients. We find it harder to attract the best talent, to have the same brand appeal, or to pay as much as the technology giants and consultancies that now comprise our competitive set.

And to be in advertising is to be in the least trusted profession in the UK. According to YouGov, the public believe we’re less likely to tell the truth than estate agents and, on the trust index, we fall below even our politicians – who, let’s face it, have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent years.

On a global stage, there is the rapid and fundamental change impacting business. Market forces are driving companies to rethink everything about how their businesses operate. As disruptive technologies and companies continue to impact consumer expectations, business environments are constantly changing. Amazon, for example, is constantly evolving. Is it a bookseller, a retailer, a media company, a logistics disruptor or the largest provider of cloud services? Amazon has built capabilities like AWS to power its own retail business and has turned that into a business itself. How it quickly stands up and then monetises these capabilities is a core skill – one which more traditional businesses need to understand and adopt.

The rate and scale of change is greater than at any time in living memory – made possible by technology and ultimately driven by the consumer. What, when, where and how we consume is changing. Our clients are struggling to adapt to this – and we have to be their partners to help them navigate this.

In addition, most businesses – particularly traditional businesses – are equally preoccupied with the challenge of growth and efficiency essential to their survival. Most companies are great at their core business, but not great at reimagining the future of their business. Agencies are no different from their clients in this regard. Our challenges and our future success are interconnected.

Before I have you all crying into your lunch, let me now sound a note of optimism for the future of our industry and the place of each member agency and individual within it, which will underpin my agenda for the next two years.

Having acknowledged and committed to addressing the challenges that I recognise we face, I am proud to say that I believe in this industry and I believe in the agencies and the individuals that contribute to it. I believe we are as well placed as any of the constituents that desire to be the partners that our clients need to grow and prosper.

There are good, even great, aspects to our industry. Our agencies and people can take credit for delivering the best advertising, media and marketing services in the world. Marketing budgets had been revised upwards for six years in succession right up to the final quarter of 2018. The latest IPA Bellwether Report for Q1 shows another uptick in marketing budgets – and yet forecasts and confidence for the future are seeing a dip as a result of geopolitical uncertainty. This tells us it is not a time to retreat, but instead ride out the uncertainty with belief and invest further in the reputation that UK advertising already has on the world stage. The demand for our creativity internationally is high and rising – the UK ad industry exports £6.9bn. The work we do yields results for clients and – through the rigour of the IPA Effectiveness Awards – we can prove it.

My agenda for the next two years will address the challenges we face head-on. As the historic categories of agency, technology company and consultancy are blurring perhaps it is appropriate that the IPA has looked to identify a president that represents these worlds coming together.

I intend to use that difference to make a difference here – to the IPA, to our member agencies, to the UK advertising industry and ultimately to our clients. I come from a technology-first world, and have actively chosen to be in a creative world. My focus has been on macro trends to drive transformational change and to unlock untapped business potential. I will bring a perspective that is different, and I will use that outside-in approach to challenge the status quo.

In choosing me as president, the IPA has acknowledged our changing world and I intend to repay that decision – to set us on a path to address the challenges to agency growth, to profitability from perceived lack of relevance, low value delivered, and differentiation. We will help our member agencies to be resilient, to reorient, to renew, and above all, to reimagine.

We have the creativity, data and increasingly the technology to make a difference and to be the partners for growth that our clients need.

Our agencies have always been in the business of helping brands to make the emotional connections to build relationships with consumers. Today, those relationships have evolved significantly from being purely about the emotional narrative to include how we harness data and technology to get that message to the right person, at the right time, on the right device. Experience, too, has become a crucial element in the customer relationship – to the extent that today the experience is the brand, and the brand is the experience. Through our creativity we have the ability to make the promise of a what a brand stands for and through technology we have the capability to transform clients’ business to truly deliver on that promise.

Sarah has done a brilliant job in setting up the IPA and its member agencies to embrace the new possibilities of technology and data, and to understand the potential of machines to help us create magic. Prior to that, Tom Knox introduced the drive to improve diversity in our industry, which becomes even more important in the context of creativity and technology coming together. And Ian Priest’s ADAPT agenda saw the IPA begin to partner with clients to help us shape what is our common future.

My agenda, rather than to pick another new direction for the next two years, will be a sequel – to build on what has gone before, but enact a step change. For those of you who think sequels are never as good as the original, I’m not aiming for the low bar of Jaws: The Revenge but more Terminator 2: Judgement Day, or even The Godfather Part 2.

My objective as IPA president for the next two years will be to change the IPA’s relevance to agencies, and the relevance of agencies to clients – to establish us as partners for growth.

And so my agenda will be to ‘Reimagine’.

I said to you before that companies are great at their core business, but not great at reimagining the future of their business. The IPA is indeed great at what it does –powering the practitioners who make UK advertising what it is today. In delivering the Reimagine agenda, we will acknowledge the positive and emotional commitment so many of us have to the IPA, the value it delivers and the many wonderful services and initiatives it has in place. We will build on these while ensuring that the IPA does not represent the past but is relevant to the future.

There are contributions that agencies uniquely can make, and value we uniquely can add, to businesses and brands. As we reimagine what’s possible let us also remember what it is we do for our clients and why we are the people who can help them shape and assure their own futures.

Brands are more important than ever. They are a rock and road map in challenging economic circumstances, in new high growth potential markets, and in an online world with proliferation of choice.

If the merger of Kraft Heinz shows us anything it is that businesses that try to cost-cut their way to growth will ultimately fail. As classic S-Curve adoption models disappear, in favour of sharp spikes in brand fame and rapid demise, we see the need for more sustainable brand and business growth. The insight, strategic and creative talent that is unique to agencies has never been more vital.

That is what ‘Reimagine’ is all about: understanding what you do best, how those qualities and that purpose must adapt in a changing world, and what we must transform to best partner with our clients in growth.

Under my agenda there are three Rs, which I believe we must reimagine: Role, Revenue and Responsibility. Through these three reimagined Rs, we will commit to helping our clients transform for the future and, by so doing, we will reimagine relevance for ourselves.

Our Role will be to truly be a partner for growth for our clients, where future growth must be delivered through more than just advertising. Reimagining and changing our role will be the most critical shift, unlocking improved outcomes in both and Responsibility. Reimagining Revenue will see us rightfully begin to share in the benefits of growth delivered. Responsibility will see a marked uptick in our reputation as we increase our efforts to address brand trust, privacy and diversity.

On Role: We must transform our Role and relationships with clients to reflect our changing times and developing technologies. That new role is to help our clients reimagine their businesses and the way that they engage with their customers. At our best, we have always been engines of growth for our clients. To maintain that status, at a time when growth is most clients’ number one challenge, we must reimagine the ways in which we help them deliver this.

By truly committing to reimagine our clients’ businesses as a partner for growth, we will transform our own agency models and ways of working – alongside new partners from data, technology and commerce to reimagine brands, communications and experiences.

What will we do differently?

The learning and development programme of training and qualifications that the IPA offers is the best of its kind in the world – valued by agencies and individuals and valued by clients. As part of my agenda to reimagine our relevance to clients, we will take these qualifications – from the Foundation Certificate, the Eff Test to the Excellence Diploma and MIPA accreditation – and elevate them from ‘valued’ to ‘indispensable’. We will add to them, with an effective IPA MBA. By working in partnership with leading business schools, we will develop a suite of IPA qualifications fit for the age, that our clients come to see as a prerequisite for the work we do in partnering with them for growth.

The IPA is rightly proud of its Royal Charter – earned in 2016 in recognition of the quality of our training. During my Presidency we will begin the process of incorporating Chartered Practitioner into the IPA’s qualifications programme – to make those qualifications internationally renowned and one of our principal exports.

As we reimagine our role we will, additionally, seek to better understand how we are perceived and where we can do better.

We will launch a major consumer study, ‘The Future of Brands, Communications and Experience’, to build on the IPA’s previous industry research on ‘The Future of Marketing and Agencies’. In partnership with the Foresight Factory, the study will explore the consumer’s experience of brands and communications in a digital age.

And in order to improve the way we work, we will undertake a ‘Data Magic’ initiative to ensure that the full potential of bringing external and internal data together is realised, and that the magic is maximised when creativity and data work together, rather than in opposition or as alternatives.

And so to Revenue. Revenue is shorthand for financial returns – the golden ticket that will help agencies escape the pressures they are under, and the prize when we successfully reimagine both our clients’ and own operating (and compensation) models. In a world without maps, agencies and clients are hungry for new success models for growth and evidence of the benefits of reimagining ways of doing things. We will create, reveal, share, showcase and award new success models – in terms of how we reimagine what we do and how we do it, and the impact that this delivers in terms of both client and agency revenues.

As we reimagine Revenue, we will launch the ‘Reimagine Challenge’ to encourage agencies to act like a startups and explore and develop new business models. The IPA will work with private equity partners and intermediaries to validate new agency models and will extend this to a global initiative – working with our international partners to identify and share new agency success models, to develop a growth mindset, and to ensure we deliver maximum value to our clients and are fairly remunerated for that value delivered. We will begin to explore these themes and new business models at our IPA Business Growth Conference in July.

We will additionally Introduce a new IPA Effectiveness Awards President’s Prize for the ‘Best Contribution to Effectiveness through Technology’ – to demonstrate the most effective use of technology to help reimagine how a brand engages with its consumers.

We will put key Reimagine themes at the heart of Eff Week in October – exploring ideas for business growth in the digital age.

My third and final R is Responsibility. Our reputation for trust, transparency and progressive business and employment practices depends on reimagining the responsibilities of both agencies and their clients. This includes agencies taking a more active role in protecting clients’ interests and becoming true guardians of brand safety. It means reimagining what a fair agency contract looks like, to create win-win situations for agencies and clients, with business growth (not just cost) at the core.

It depends on us being beacons of inclusivity and diversity, committing to the benefits of agency and client teams reflecting the diversity of the target audiences they are seeking to engage.

What are we going to do to address this?

First, I recognise that there is work to be done to clean up the digital frontier and to ensure that our industry, through the IPA, is a force for positive change and a champion of trust.

We will not shirk from this responsibility but will acknowledge and address our role wherever we can add trust and transparency for clients and consumers in this digital world. We will partner with government, with ISBA, the IAB and AOP – and, where necessary we will act as a critical friend to the digital duopoly where standards in brand safety, online harms and transparency have been breached.

Separately, I recognise that key to Responsibility (and, in part, to revenue growth) is sustainable relationships founded on knowledge, mutual understanding, open communication and ultimately trust. To our media agency members in particular I will commit to creating and maintaining sustainable, value-led relationships that work for all parties based on mutual respect. Our ‘ISBA/IPA Sustainable Relationships Working Group’ will promote the alignment of marketing, procurement and agencies and provide the foundation for future relationships.

In partnership with ISBA we will deliver a programme for advertisers and agencies of live study supported by digital-first content to build knowledge of each other and third parties, to grow mutual understanding and to drive alignment on an industry-wide basis.

The IPA has done excellent work in driving diversity up our industry’s agenda. Diversity is a responsibility for sure, but it is also crucial to us reimagining our role, revenue and ultimately our relevance in the world. Under my Reimagine agenda, I ask that the IPA and our member agencies take commitment to diversity to the next level – to look to solutions rather than just measurement of the problem.

And we will introduce initiatives to help drive that change:

The reporting of diversity ratios for women in leadership roles, and BAME people in both entry-level and leadership roles, was introduced by the IPA in 2016 – and will become mandatory for IPA members agencies from 2021.

My aim over the two years of my presidency will be to establish the IPA as the go-to resource for agency diversity improvements. To that end we will join forces with Creative Equals to establish an Equality Standard to provide the industry with the framework and training to help member agencies attain that Standard as part of their agency’s Continuous Professional Development.

And the IPA, ISBA and the Advertising Association will look to launch a UK Chapter of the Unstereotype Alliance, the global programme run by UN Women aimed at removing stereotypes within creative work and improving gender diversity. This was an action proposed in the AA Trust Action Plan published last month at ISBA’s conference.

In closing, I will say that I am both optimistic and excited by what these next two years and beyond hold for our industry. To bring a new and different perspective. To realise that – for consumers, clients and agencies – the change, challenge and certainly the opportunities we face are significant, and they are shared. We, the IPA, see what you see – because we begin this journey acknowledging what every one of you is facing.

In our work on behalf of our industry and the agencies within it, we will not shirk from our responsibility to advance our profession and its purpose in the business and the wider world, to shape and own the future.

I will leave you with this thought, and pledge: if we commit to help our clients reimagine their futures, we will reimagine our own.

Nigel Vaz is global chief executive of Publicis Sapient and the new IPA president

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