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Ete Davies: The best agencies don’t just drive growth, they find new ways for clients to grow

Ete Davies

As part of this week’s Agencies4Growth Festival, we’re asking some of the brightest minds in marketing why agencies matter today. Here, Engine Creative chief exec Ete Davies, makes the case for agencies' value in a world where clients are increasingly considering taking work in-house.

Tension between clients and their agencies isn’t new, of course, but it feels like creatives are expected to prove that we deliver value to a greater degree than at any point in my career to date – possibly ever. What tangible benefits are we providing? What return do we give on the client’s investment? The budget holders want to know, and who can blame them.

It puts agencies in a tricky position. What we perceive as success doesn’t always chime with client metrics, which can cause frustration. Yet if we simply accept the client definition of a good outcome, the industry ends up with a lot of very samey propositions and services and the commoditisation of creative work. Cue the trend for in-housing and procurement-led pitches.

At the same time creative agencies, previously used to working with CMOs and their teams, are seeing the C-suite being disrupted. A new generation of stakeholders with a different take on brand marketing is emerging, which is also transforming agency/brand relationships.

This is the exact point where creative agencies must hold their nerve and remember what our role in the ecosystem is. Yeah, a lot of people will say it’s to make ads – and if that’s you, enjoy your in-house job!

For me, though, the best creative agencies contribute something huge to their clients – we find new and innovative ways to drive growth. We’re experts in the kind of creativity which gives clients a competitive advantage, a talent which can’t, and arguably shouldn’t, be replicated internally.

The external element is vital because it means we’re in a position to make creative leaps and to be provocative without fear. We find those bits of insight or thinking which transform a business, but which are impossible to see within the constraints of the organisation.

We invest in “understanding the future and then bringing it back for lunch”. We can take risks in research, innovation and experimentation, digest all of that and funnel the results directly into the work we do for our clients, or help to ‘level-up’ our clients’ knowledge and expertise.

We deeply understand people – what shapes behaviours and opinions, so we know how our clients can build meaningful, authentic relationships with consumers. We’re plugged into culture (often we help drive it) and the ways in which our clients can be part of it.

Where things stand right now, in the middle of a global pandemic with one heck of a recession on its way, means there’s huge emphasis on growth. Consequently, a frank, open relationship between a client and an agency is more valuable than ever.

But as much as I truly believe in the value that creative agencies make to their clients, there are wider issues at stake.

It’s easy to believe that what we do is trivial; that if we no longer existed no one would notice. But that’s to underplay the huge contribution that creative agencies have made to society and culture.

Our work can and should inform, educate and entertain, not just sell. You can read stats about the dangers of drinking and driving; but it’s via stories, often told through advertising, that people gain the agency to stop doing it. Even for brands this applies – our best work helps people in some way, which leads to commercial returns for our clients.

We have a responsibility and role to drive a more inclusive, diverse, society. Our work highlights our similarities, celebrates and normalises our differences, and smashes stereotypes. The stories we tell can help with representation too, sparking conversations that can bring different generations and cultures together.

I’d also argue that advertising agencies have been crucial in the widespread adoption of the philosophy of brand purpose beyond profit. This, in turn, is sparking a conversation about why we measure success purely in financial terms, and not in terms of human happiness and wellbeing.

When we do our jobs well, we spark cultural phenomena. Ad agencies have helped build brands that are now synonymous with music, culture, art and sports, and we’ve taken subcultures into the mainstream.

And we’ve made our own contributions too, with lines that slip into mainstream use to become part of the vernacular, such as “does what it says on the tin”, or “I [heart] NY”.

None of this means that budget holders should give us their money without question, but let’s make sure that the questions that are being asked are the right ones. Growth remains the perennial challenge, but achieving this requires big picture, connected thinking; something that is best tackled by brands and agencies working together in true partnership.