We are spotlighting some of the best essays from our MIPA qualifying courses and qualifications. Here, Cogent's Julie Teague explains why running an agency is no longer about evolution, but revolution, as part of the IPA Leadership Course.
Evolving an agency over the next five years is no longer evolution, it is revolution. Previous regional, national, international barriers have been torn down through the progression of technology. We are amid a fourth industrial revolution, Cyber Systems, Internet of Things (IoT) and networks have eroded physical boundaries, automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) has created time and cost efficiencies which either increase the margin or retain it when competitors challenge our pricing.
The billable hour has been under pressure for decades, alternate providers are growing and undercutting the revenue streams of our establishments. Start Up and incumbents who have the agility to seize new technology, scale rapidly and adopt new ways of working are the ones who not only survive but thrive. They are agile partly because they don’t yet have the infrastructure limiting the theory over the practice. They don’t sweat it when the world changes, they adapt and change with it.
Our industry must take heed, do not wait to wonder where margins eroded to, think like the new kids on the block, be nimble and agile. We must be flexible enough to bend, not break when the rules of the game change.
The fourth industrial revolution is evolving at an exponential rather than linear pace, disrupting every industry in every country. Revolution is sudden and radical, we are seeing miniature revolutions in succession which create the linear trajectory we associate with evolution, but it is a series of revolution stacked on top of one another appearing as stepped changes versus a steady evolutionary singular change (Figure 1).
The outline of this essay had been formed in my mind before COVID-19 struck. I never envisaged a crisis of this magnitude could occur. In my session on leadership in turbulent times and understanding the anatomy of a creative leader these principles are what we are experiencing as leaders. With COVID-19 these learnings are more relevant than ever. Businesses in all sectors are reacting at lightning speed to address new, unchartered territory. Ask me last year if we could test our Disaster Recovery Process (DRP) and enable the whole agency to work remotely in 3 days, I would have said anything less than three months was implausible. What may have seemed a stretch of the imagination a few months back is now the new reality.
This impacts wide ranging political and economic factors. We must embrace change, embrace the certainty of uncertainty. Agencies are well equipped to deal with uncertainty already, it is an inherent part of our industry, pitching and speculation is risky business. Accepting uncertainty and ambiguity exists is not an admission of ignorance but an expression of confidence which is empowering, leaving us more focused on areas we can control or influence.
Macro-Leadership looks at wider events like future planning, ultimately this will feed into micro-leadership with how to implement your organisational day to day activities to keep ahead or adapt at the very least. If your agency can not be agile and nimble regardless of size you will fall behind. We must not be afraid to change direction through pride, what we said yesterday may not be relevant based on new information today. We must lean into discomfort and courage over comfort.
Change requires momentum, a technological revolution has been building for years, it is no surprise to macro-leaders, yet many talked action over acting. Slow change is no change, it is one step forward, leaving you two steps back. We need to take three steps forward in one stride. Looking to agency life 5 years in the future you can start an evolution now to soften the velocity of the revolution impact on your agency, be at the forefront, not on the back foot.
We have so much data at our disposal. Knowing how to take what seems an incoherent mess and making it clear and concise can help make the seemingly impossible begin to take shape.
Laying out a road map I have three key points, which I’ve labelled my ‘PEP’ talk. Purpose, Effectiveness, People. I see these as fundamentally core to agency models now and in anticipation of the future. The basics need to be right, if they are not even working at revolutionary speed your model will struggle.
We must have a clarity of purpose (definition: 'why you do something or why something exists'). Your purpose is not your mission, vision or values. Your purpose can be aspirational. 75.4% of charity workers have preference for a role which provided more fulfilment and chose a Not For Profit (NFP) or charities for those reasons. Individuals behaviour is known to be driven by internal rewards, purpose satisfies that intrinsic motivation need. Purpose personifies a company into becoming so much more than a registration number or a set of financial statements, it should connect with the heart and the head, like a philosophical heartbeat, pull people together to a common goal. The purpose is bigger than the individual or the company, it takes on a life of its own. Where purpose leads to more fulfilment, there is plenty of evidence it creates better engagement and better profits.
Distilling a purpose through a eureka moment into something tangible and value adding is the ideal. If your company had a eulogy, what might it be? If you cannot crack it, this can be achieved retrospectively by asking why your clients use you, why your staff drag themselves to work every day. If the answers theme around "you were the cheapest", "a job's a job" you are in more need of one than you thought. If business results aren’t enough to convince you and it is all a bit 'twee' for your liking, at least that’s authentic to you, better no purpose than an empty promise bought about by a tick box exercise.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but, resist the temptation to plagiarise purpose. Charlatans be warned, blagging your purpose reeks of dishonesty and purpose based on a lie is destined to create resentment, mistrust and breed a toxic culture.
Ultimately, your purpose (or absence of) must be truly authentic to your agency. A strong purpose feeds in and out of a strong brand and strong culture. Those are as valuable. Intangible assets represent financial impact on the balance sheet. In layman’s terms, it creates a monetary value. Agency values are higher where these exist. Without this you will find it difficult to realise the full value from your agency when the day arrives to sell up or pass on your legacy. Knowing this can be used as a powerful external persuader too, your service to clients isn’t a cost to them it’s investing in balance sheet asset creation.
Effectiveness is a measure of success. Activities are effective if they achieve their goals. This is the IPA definition. When I think of the IPA, effectiveness is always at the forefront of my mind, we have a whole day dedicated to the importance of effectiveness (Eff Day) in the advertising calendar. Firstly, is your purpose leading to effectiveness? Purpose should be an absolute signpost to leadership decision making, yet worryingly 68% of leaders admit they do not use it as such when making decisions and seems they have missed the point, have it for purely expedient reasons and it becomes ineffective.
We must resist the temptation to talk about our business to clients, they want to talk about their business. Knowing your client’s business as well as your own and advising what is right for them, even (and especially) when this might be detrimental to you. Your clients and people will trust you for your integrity.
Talking to a client using agency buzzwords in a vain attempt to project an air of superiority over the client (or anyone else) about your intellectual prowess will not endear you to anyone. Adapt to your audience, the key to a great two-way relationship is to converse in the same language. If you cannot explain something in a way your client understands, rethink what you are saying. Be clear how it solves their brief. However, if their brief is not asking the right questions it is incumbent on you to probe further and explain your thinking. For our clients we painstakingly pour over data, extract information, provide actionable insights. If an insight does not influence decisions or drive change, then it is not an insight. Yet when it comes to our own effectiveness, we tend do things without verification; we feel we instinctively know it or rely on anecdotal feedback. We would never advise a client based on such loose findings, yet we consistently action such information ourselves. If we cannot effectively gauge what is working for us, how do we stop repeating bad decisions or yield more from the good ones? This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, we set off on missions to create our own intellectual property, Unique Selling Points (USP) we think we do it well, but fail to ask ourselves what was the intent? How do we measure if it lived up to it?
It is all about being effective and embedding that principle throughout every fibre of the agency. Effectiveness is everyone’s business.
People (the people who work for an organisation or person) are unique. We know this, yet we continue to operate under a one size fits all umbrella. The way we will work in the future is calling out for change, whilst technology has its advantages the 'always on' nature is causing burnout and home/life is at a serious imbalance. The office is no longer a place to flourish, staff stuck on auto pilot are less creative. Rentals are expensive, except for a few early adopter of flexible rentals we generally have large office spaces with permanent desks assigned. Even with hot-desking there remains a territorial battle over who has a pedestal becoming a new status symbol of place in the hierarchy. Rental space should be seen as a collaboration/creative hub, a place you attend to do just that. If today is not that day or you need some peace to focus, work remotely. We need to create the freedom, space and tools that allow creativity in the first place. Work is something you do, not a place you go. People are putting increasing pressure on employers to change but fear and mistrust hold employers back. Through COVID-19 people understand themselves better and once again appreciate simple things in life, such as eating dinner with the family instead of commuting down the motorway.
If your business managed working remotely through COVID-19 you cannot expect to cite outdated policy to chain your people back to the office, if it worked when it suited you, why wouldn’t it work when it suits them, if you expect things to go back to how they were, expect a rebellion.
Rules and process make managing a business easier, as a leader this is a difficult mix to get right. Make a policy then that is flexible, create a culture of trust and remove people who abuse that trust. When people are valued and empowered it will free leaders to optimise their value to the business. It will move the agency into a 'high performing' culture model which are also more profitable and attract and retain the best talent and clients.
As artificial intelligence (AI) develops, it opens up a world of opportunity to redress the imbalance even more so. What if your AI becomes your own Intellectual Property (IP), you can work when you are not working? All the mundane repetitive tasks are done by your own AI. Reply to your emails, take and make calls, log timesheets, set up meetings, do your filing. Leaving us free to do the job we enjoy. If it sounds too futuristic, video calling was futuristic a decade ago. We already have the technology. AI is a similar proposition to the integrated agency. Simply an extension of something else, an extension of yourself. In a creative environment this means more time for ‘thinking’ up that killer campaign or your client’s new strategy.
Overhaul is also needed in relation to remuneration. Individuals are exactly that, yet we offer the same package structures to everyone. Broad brush assumptions are limiting. This is about tribes not demographics. Remuneration packages which are bespoke and adaptable similar to a pick and mix system would create that individualism and help nullify negative office gossip around who has Bupa or a legacy and hierarchical hangover of the past.
Salary Packages could be made up of 100 points. You have a finite salary amount which divided by 100 gives the £ value of each point. Example: £30,000 package. Each point is worth £300. The package could simply use 100 points for salary, or it could pick from a shopping list of benefits to spend the points. The list of benefits could then be much more wide reaching, from the standard to the obscure. For example: fancy a sabbatical for a month, that’s 10 points. Need a season ticket for the train that’s 5 points. Money is still a taboo subject, talking in points neutralises sensitivity around salary conversations. The configuration possibilities are endless with new products being added for selection to meet new demand.
Ignoring Employers National Insurance and administration, the cost to the business is fairly static, yet there is real choice in what is important to the individual at that stage in their life, with the option to review how the points are spent annually to allow for changes in circumstances.
An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it We need the best talent, these measures are all part of defining your talent strategy. Diverse businesses are proven to be more profitable. Rethinking your remuneration packages will help attract and retain top talent from all walks of life, without increasing the salary boundaries. When servicing a wide set of client’s’ cognitive diversity in an organisation will be instrumental in client retention.
All these items coupled together could be the right recipe to highest margins and best Net Promoter Score (NPS) scores in the industry.
As Nigel Vaz (IPA President) stated in his inaugural speech, "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 future success are interconnected".
Like people, agencies are individual, there is no one theory or dogmatic approach that will work for all. Creative industries are built on taking risks. We pitch for business at great cost, we deliver concepts to have them picked apart and critiqued for ever more vague reasons. We are asked for brave only to find their brave is our boring. The uncertainty and the challenge is why we do it, It is why we love it and why we won’t stop. We are already an industry of trailblazers. Let us push the envelope for ourselves with the same passion we push it with our clients.
This is not a thought piece; it is a call to action. Have your own PEP talk. Identify your gaps versus your vision? Act today! Be it a small step or a leap of faith. Re-imagine your future.
Julie Teague is Group Finance Director at Cogent. This essay earned her a Distinction for the IPA Leadership Course.Find out more about the IPA Leadership Course