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The merits of making the switch from client to agency side

By Mark Stevenson, Managing director

Cherry London


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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August 8, 2019 | 6 min read

We all know that the footballer Phil Neville had an illustrious playing career: 59 caps for England, an integral part of Manchester United’s 1998/1999 treble winning team – being two of the standout highlights from numerous potential accolades.

Fifa Women's World Cup

Cherry London consider the impact of making the switch from client side to agency side.

This summer, Neville used these and his other experiences as a player, to great effect. As the head coach of the England Woman’s Football Team (affectionately known as The Lionesses), he successfully guided them to fourth place in FIFA Women’s World Cup, only narrowly being beaten in the semi-finals by the pre-tournament favourites and eventual winners, the USA. In a global senior tournament, not many England teams have achieved better. It’s a case of those that can coach!

Having spent over 20 years as a ‘client’ at ‘household brands’ such as O2, British Gas, Dulux Paints, Polyfilla and Chubb Security, my move ‘across the line’ to take a position as managing director of award winning marketing agency, Cherry London, has been met with much interest by former colleagues and agency folk alike. Although, I am not the first or indeed alone in crossing over - there have been a number of high profile examples of making the switch. The highly respected FMCG marketeer, Lee Rolston, moved between brands such as InBev, Cadbury, Muller and Heinz before switching to agency side as a strategy director at JKR - bringing with him his insight of client side mechanics and empathy for the many challenges facing clients. Daryl Fielding also ‘crossed the line’ but the other way. With over ten years at Ogilvy, she made the switch client side to work on and lead on brands like Kraft and Vodafone. Both Rolston and Fielding brought their unique ‘external’ perspectives to deliver commercial advantage to their new paymasters.

Nevertheless, making the switch doesn’t suit everyone. For some, there is a clear division, the ‘them’ and ‘us’, the ‘client’ and the ‘agency’. The benefit of insight and perspective from the ‘other side’ is not always enough and is by no means a ticket to success, irrespective of industry! Just look at one of Hollywood’s leading actors - Nicolas Cage, who made the switch from acting to directing - the result, the poorly received Sonny, which was his debut and to date remains his only directorial piece.

In my role as a CMO on the client side, I often had to both unite and inspire the client AND agency teams to effectively drive projects forward, towards common shared goals. Together we made up the brand and/or marketing team. Marketing and crucially, stakeholder management can’t and don’t work in silo. Today marketeers have to be experts in many things - managing various stakeholders and influencing other teams, that may not be under your direct control is a daily challenge. I always held that success requires alignment and collaboration between both the client and agency teams as well as other key stakeholders – both internal and external. For me, the line between agency and client side has never been a hard line.

Personally, like Phil Neville, I feel my client side (or playing) experience has given me the perfect competitive advantage. I understand the client environment having managed large teams across multiple disciplines and departments, at all levels from fellow C-suiters to more junior colleagues at the start of their careers as well as multiple other (department and/or discipline) stakeholders. This is an advantage, as when talking to Cherry clients I know exactly what pressures they are under. The multi-layered processes they have to adhere to, the many tasks that they WILL be juggling and not in a theoretically 'I understand’ way but in a 'I know exactly, I’ve been there, read the book, seen the film and even got the T-shirt' in both a tactical and strategic operational way. This is hugely exciting and I’m excited by the challenge and opportunity this perspective will bring to my new role at Cherry London.

At O2, I was fortunate to lead the team that delivered big brand sponsorships and partnerships with large stakeholder partners, delivering impactful brand activation to millions of customers, requiring full end-to-end control of the customer experience. Success was dependent upon many factors, but not least of all, there couldn’t be any ‘one single point of failure’ we were only as good as the weakest link. This called for a diverse set of skills from P&L management to product development to strategy and beyond. Data and customer insight drives the strategy that informs action and great agencies help their clients navigate not only their end customer environment, but also their corporate environment too.

Cherry London were one of the agency teams who understood the wider business challenges, the real issues and acted as ‘change agents.' Together we created O2 Priority, the UK’s largest digital loyalty and engagement platform. Eight years later, Cherry London continues to develop the O2 Priority strategy and partnership programme, delivering exclusive content, offers and inventory for millions of O2 customers day in day out, customers who spend more and stay longer. For me, it was a natural progression and just felt right, to be fortunate enough to join and lead the team I’d worked with for several years previously. Bringing my experiences of the ever dynamic matrix and managing, influencing and perpetually juggling many tasks to help solve some of the problems of our clients and partners; it's not every day that the true value of partnerships is recognised.

If you’re looking for an agency that’s prepared to ‘get in the ditch’ with you and really understand your wider business challenges and the ‘real’ issues that you are wrestling with, then please drop me a line. We’d love to work collaboratively with you; help you to devise, implement and deliver a strategy to propel you ahead of the competition in an ever more dynamic industry.

Mark Stevenson, managing director at Cherry London.


Content by The Drum Network member:

Cherry London

Cherry London is a new breed of marketing agency with a story about the power of collaboration. Independently owned, it is based in London and works globally. As...

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