Nimble, lean and focused: the evolution of planners turned consultants
It's never easy setting up on your own but clients are increasingly finding that a scaled-down, more agile strategy partner is the perfect fit.
In 2021, Campaign identified a growing trend of strategists and planners going their own way and work as independent consultants.
One of the people Campaign spoke to was Amelia Torode, who co-founded The Fawnbrake Collective in 2017 to bring together the best independent strategic minds. Her 2021 decision to move from “strategy as a service” to thinking “more as a product company” transformed the business. Fawnbrake now runs strategy hackathons for clients, using a clear three-phase methodology: mapping, acceleration and embed.
Senior client teams, often founders, use this to focus on a specific strategic challenge; a new prototype, new audience, new positioning or new mindset. Torode describes this as a much easier sell, because it offers a clearly independent and unbiased overview.
“Really great strategists take inspiration and ideas from outside the category. That gets you to a better place,” she says.
StratHack as a product has now been used by the likes of the Carlsberg Group, Google and Somerset House, but its success has again led Torode back to thinking about scale.
“It is the classic ‘how to take something that is quite heavily founder-driven?’” she explains. “Is there a scalable business? Does it stay small and boutique? I don’t know the answers at the moment.”
Being your own boss is not for everyone, but Sally Weavers admits she enjoys it so much that she thinks “I’m now unemployable.”
In November 2017, Weavers broke away from traditional agency life as managing director at Initiative UK to co-found strategy and planning consultancy Craft Media with Jen Smith, who was then global creative director at Maxus.
Weavers describes the “autonomy of making decisions when you need to make them” as one reason why she’s unlikely to return to a big agency structure any time soon.
Weavers says Craft was founded on the hunch that “we firmly believed a good CommsStrat can change the fortunes of a client”. However, she acknowledges that “clients were used to not paying for it”.
Craft has quickly gone from five to 24 people and now works with around 80 different paying clients a year. “We’ve proven clients will pay really well for a great comms strat,” says Weavers. “They can see if it’s planned properly and measured properly, there’s an effect at the end of it.”
Brands on its global roster range from BrewDog, The Body Shop, Rowse Honey and Deloitte, to toilet-paper challenger Who Gives A Crap.
Craft is retained by 30% of clients, with returning ones making up the rest with projects. New business almost exclusively comes from recommendation and Weavers suggests the Craft model also helps those with “relatively small budgets” and those who “just need a little bit of adjustment each year”.
She is bullish when describing the positive reaction from competing multi-discipline agencies, who haven’t tried to “shove” Craft out of the equation.
“I think that hasn’t happened because we do the hard bit. We work in sprints, so it’s like a real immersion, rather than having 10 clients spread really thinly. Clients see the quality being much higher and the amount of involvement in projects being much deeper.”
Getting to the brand’s reason for being
Another business Campaign spoke to in 2021 was Craig & Bridget, with co-founders Craig Mawdsley and Bridget Angear still firmly sticking with their initial partnership plan. The former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO pair collaborate with freelances but Angear says they are “enjoying keeping it really simple”.
Having delivered around 70 projects since launch, enabled by leaving “at a point where you have a bit of a reputation”, C&B’s “sweet spot” has become helping brands get to the core idea of what’s driving them. This nugget then dictates wider plans.
However, as two people who “like to be right”, Angear admits she and Mawdsley bicker at a low level. However, she says: “To get better answers, we have to have a bit of 'never take it personally'.”
Having someone to share the pressure has also been important to them, she adds, explaining how the duo put themselves under “potentially a higher degree of scrutiny” compared with working on the agency side.
A recent project exemplifies the satisfaction C&B get from finding a way to tell clients what they “thought they knew” in a way they were previously not able to articulate.
The pair previously worked with Jo Juber when she was head of brand at Macmillan Cancer Support and they were at AMV – the three reconnected to help Poppy’s Funerals transform perceptions of its industry.
Angear is drawn to categories with taboos where you can "find something that’s interesting that hasn’t been done”. Their advice was to “kind of laugh” at how most funerals were still run as if they were in the Victorian era.
Juber believes this “more relaxed” and “lean” collaboration enabled the brand to be “bold and decisive”. “There wasn’t resource, time or budget to go to town on workshops, multiple research rounds and meetings with a cast of thousands. You realise how superfluous and counterproductive a lot of this is,” she adds.
For Angear, a regret is not having had the confidence to strike out independently earlier. C&B’s clients have since included snack brand Lay’s, Costa Coffee, Nando’s and Miele, as well as charities Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Action for Children.
She is honest when admitting to previously asking herself “how am I going to work with that?” when the roles were reversed and Angear was agency-side being offered ideas by a brand consultancy.
But she says: “We’ve handed our thinking to all sorts of different agencies, and they’ve been very welcoming. I’m hoping because we’ve been at the receiving end, we’re better at knowing what they need to do their job well.”
Alaina Crystal is celebrating her first successful solo year in business. The former AMV strategist has worked on huge global accounts including Barbie, Bodyform and Guinness, but now focuses on projects linked by gender equity. She recently completed a coaching qualification that also forms part of her offering.
Crystal admits “loneliness” was problematic after agency life, but structuring her initial 12 months as an experiment helped. “I did not sit down on day one and go 'right, I have this business plan and these targets and I'm gonna be really intense about this',” she explains.
“I was able to see what feels good, what feels less good and not feel panicked about whether it was a success or not.”
Crystal believes it was the “right time” in her career to go it alone, because she had the right level of confidence, network and mentoring, but she admits pricing was a challenge. However, being part of an online community called Ladies Who Strategise (for women identifying and non-binary strategists all over the globe) meant she got advice on benchmarking charges.
“Each project brings a different flavour and a different collaboration,” she says. “That feels so different from my time in an advertising agency.”
Creative work that delivers revenue
Mawdsley says that since setting up independently as Craig & Bridget, the pair have moved from charging clients for their time. Instead, they charge fixed fees for deliverables because this “creates a much better client experience”. “They know what the project will cost and it avoids us ever going back to them to ask for more fee,” he says. “It also incentivises us to solve problems for them quickly and efficiently.” He adds this was “impossible to do in a big agency”, as they find it very hard to manage the risk and are “generally incentivised” to charge for as many people and days as they can. Weavers says Craft charges a project cost linked to both team and time. “Generally, it shouldn’t cost much more to have Craft plus a Media agency,” she explains. “It should be a bit more expensive because of the seniority of the team, regardless of the size of the client. We would never palm off a small client to a junior planner." Media agency commissions reduce as they “aren’t doing any of the strategy, planning or account management" suggests Weavers adding the agencies they work with regularly “see how much of the work we shoulder and so this is never an issue with them either”.
“While we don’t buy, we do still manage the process through to reporting. So we are approving implementation plans put together by the media agency and presenting those back to the client,” she says. “It isn’t a question of handing over a strategy and leaving the buying agency to it.”
Weavers, Angear and Torode all agree that having set out under their own steam, clients experience the full benefit of their slimmed-down focus. For example, a strategy or plan is based on need rather than favoured channels or commissions – it doesn’t stop at media buying activity and changing spend.
But while this might be a bit more expensive overall, Weavers argues “it should be”, given the output is “significantly better”.
Clients recognise this in Craft’s outcomes. Its success for BrewDog saw the brand work with Peter Crouch’s podcast to create new and distinct content away from the classic media space. This included BrewDog creating LaOut, a lager mixed with stout that Crouch had the idea for.
“It sells out every time we release a batch,” Weavers says. “It would have been easy just to sponsor that podcast but we went deeper and drove revenue.”
Catherine McCartan, senior global marketing and brand manager for Formula E, left a large-scale agency and chose Craft because it “shared our challenger spirit”.
McCartan explains how Craft has transformed Formula E’s media performance as it aims to attract a younger, more progressive audience. This includes record-breaking ticket sales, a significant increase in global awareness and a successful entrance into the Indian market.
“It’s never a case of us just being fed the same programmatic channel laydown, which I’ve found to be a symptom of working with larger agencies,” she says. That’s borne out by Craft’s energetic approach and out-of-the-box thinking to creative work: “It’s not a new TikTok media format, instead it’s our car racing a fighter jet.”