How agencies can win as a new world emerges

Takeouts from the 2024 IPA Business Growth Conference

In a world where AI, sustainability and generational shifts are driving barely conceivable change, Co:definery CEO Robin Bonn argues that agencies are uniquely placed to take a leadership role.

Answer me this: where else can you learn about agency growth with perspectives on topics as diverse as AI and commercial models, as well as young talent and sustainability? 

That was a trick question. There’s only one answer - the annual IPA Business Growth Conference. And this year’s content didn’t disappoint. 

So if your agency’s looking for new opportunities in a fast-changing world - and if not, why not? - then here are my takeouts. 

Be ready for the new economy

We started with leading economics journalist Faisal Islam, a man present at more historic events than Forrest Gump (his gag, not mine). His jaunty intro covered inflation (we’re through the worst - yay), interest rates (heading down soon - double yay) and tectonic shifts in global economic models. 

Where else can you learn about agency growth with perspectives on topics as diverse as AI and commercial models, as well as young talent and sustainability? There’s only one answer - the annual IPA Business Growth Conference. And this year’s content didn’t disappoint.

Robin Bonn, CEO, Co:definery

A key question for agencies was whether politicians will have the leadership skills to sell voters on investing for the future, before the scale of the challenge becomes cost-prohibitive.

As it turned out, this balance of long and short term set the tone for the day. 

AI-powered innovation

So, you might’ve heard, there’s this new thing called ‘AI’. And apparently, there’s a LOT of hot air being bellowed about it. Thankfully, we heard from a bunch of smart people, each with a different take, none of which compelled us to salute our new robot overlords. 

That was a trick question. There’s only one answer - the IPA’s annual Business Growth Conference. And this year’s content didn’t disappoint. 

The most far-reaching view came from WPP’s Chief AI Officer, Daniel Hulme. Of the six ‘singularities’ he closed with, one described a beautiful utopia where supply chain efficiency rendered ‘work’ obsolete, so we could all focus on building a better world. I’ll drink to that. 

Back to the present day, Geoff de Burca from EssenceMediacom described how they’ve created ‘Sidekick’, an internal tool that makes AI-powered efficiency accessible to everyone in the business, not just the AI-curious or the prompt engineers. 

Focusing on client opportunities, VCCP’s Liberty Covill and Iva Johan delivered a practical masterclass in creating brand safe AI-generated assets, in this case for O2. One of many learnings for me was remembering to explicitly teach AI what your brand mascot looks like from behind. Every day’s a school day! 

We also heard from Spark Foundry’s Marcos Angelides about the mind-boggling commercial opportunities that AI can create - not least Snapchat influencer Caryn Marjorie, who trousers a tidy $300k a month from her fans paying to chat with her digital twin, CarynAI. 

Fixing the broken agency business model 

Speaking of new commercial models, next up Huge’s Lisa De Bonis and The Business Model Company’s Caroline Johnson shared how they’ve partnered to reinvent Huge’s business model. As Caroline rightly said, agencies “can’t productise effort” and “value is in the hands of clients”. So charging for time just doesn’t make sense. 

As Camilla Kemp neatly put it while running a subsequent panel on agency models, “it’s taken ten years to learn how to do this in 30 minutes - clients are paying for the ten years, not the 30 minutes”. 

Clearly the time for action is now. As The Aperto Partnership’s Scott Moorhead said, “the FTE model is dead - we won’t see it in two years”. Agencies must change how they position themselves, how they go to market and how they price. 

Embracing the next generation

Here the conference shifted gears, with Hall & Partners’ David Moir sharing detailed research on how to retain junior to mid-level agency talent. 

So if you’re a leader of a certain age who wishes you could return to the ‘before times’, I have bad news. By 2033, 35% of the workforce will be GenZ. 

And while I’m not a massive fan of bundling this cohort, there are some solid generational trends. For one, they have no pre-Covid, pre-cost of living crisis or pre-hybrid work frame of reference, so of course they don’t see the world like you. 

Bottom line? Clients are increasingly demanding young people with fresh ideas on their business, so agencies must create a safe space for them to thrive. 

The sustainability opportunity 

Speaking of the future, next we moved onto there being any kind of future. One Planet Communications’ Hilary Berg offered a sobering contrast. In 2019 it was Extinction Rebellion writing to agency leaders to compel them to recognise their role in the climate emergency. But in 2024, it’s the UN Secretary of State who’s calling on agencies to “stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction”. 

It’s not just the planet and the rhetoric that’s heating up around agencies. Climate lawyer Jonathan White of Client Earth explained how regulatory and legislative constraints around green claims were tightening, with all ‘facts’ needing to be independently verified before brands deploy them in their communications. 

And therein lies your opportunity. As Diageo’s Global Marketing Sustainability Director Deb Caldow put it, “all big advertisers have people like me to mobilise their marketing teams”. And Reckitt’s Global Head Communications & Government Affairs Patricia O’Hayer was even more direct, "why should clients listen to you, if you don't know what we're talking about?”. 

Future proof your agency

So, big short term challenges and big long term opportunities. Where do you start? Step one, let’s get real. As Lisa De Bonis put it, “the industry’s been on its knees for ten years… we have a crisis of confidence and we’ve lost our swagger, so it’s time to rebuild the industry we love”. Hallelujah, sister.

What’s in the way? Three interconnected commercial challenges: 

  • Differentiation - more consultative selling and commanding a premium is enabled by meaningful differentiation. But trading on ‘creativity’ as your ‘superpower’ is no more differentiating that a chef saying the secret to great food is making it ‘tasty’. 
  • Growth in the age of AI - AI is decimating the billable hour, so get clear on how to value and price your thinking not just your doing.
  • Ethical treatment of talent - ‘sweating your assets’ isn’t a sustainable business model. Agencies must offer a healthy working life. 

These challenges may feel complex, but here’s one unifying reframe. Stop believing the myth that you're a commodity. Instead, recognise that the agency market isn't oversupplied, it's just under-differentiated.

Over-servicing clients, giving your ideas away and playing it safe all feel like necessary evils when you believe that you're one of many.

But this conference highlighted what’s possible when you step up and author your own story. So take a leadership position, define where you can win and create what I call a ‘Market of One’. 

As RBConsulting’s Rick Benfield put it, "instead of focusing on how bad things will be if we don't change, let's focus on how great it will be if we do."

The new IPA research 'Defining the modern workplace' exploring the attributes, influences and workplace values of Gen Z is available to download for free


Robin Bonn is the CEO of Co:definery, a specialist consulting and coaching practice for agencies.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 09 July 2024