Why planners are breaking free from agency chains
When Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s long-standing duo Craig Mawdsley and Bridget Angear (pictured) unveiled their strategy consultancy, Craig & Bridget, last month, they joined a growing band of planners who have gone their own way.
Over the past couple of years alone, there has been a wave of consultancies set up by former high-profile agency planners, including: The Barber Shop led by Dino Myers-Lamptey (ex-MullenLowe Mediahub), Bodacious run by Zoe Scaman (ex-Droga5), Saboteur Studio co-founded by Alex Clegg (ex-Brand Union), Deft founded by Ian Crocombe and Niran Vinod (ex-Facebook), and the WPP-backed Proto, set up by five people from R/GA’s consulting practice.
These consultancies typically comprise small core teams of senior people with access to a wide network of freelancers. Many were born out of frustration at the existing agency model. What they offer the founders is the ability to free strategy from a predetermined creative execution, solve broader business problems and ensure strategy is better valued and rewarded by clients.
Scaman speaks for many when she says she became disillusioned with agencies because strategy always had to lead to an ad: “We didn’t charge properly for strategy. Clients got the thinking ‘for free’ and the agency made their margins in the production cost.”
Increasingly, she was seeing clients with more complex business problems for which she believed the solution lay outside advertising – in product innovation, changing a pricing strategy or launching in a new market. But she says that such thinking “was actively discouraged because it wasn’t leading to the profit margin that the agency wanted. Clients begin to lose trust in your ability to navigate them in the right direction.”
Sally Weavers, co-founder of comms planning business Craft Media, had a similar experience. “Craft was set up in 2018 as a direct kick against what was happening in media agencies. Strategy was being very steadily downgraded,” she says. Clients were being pushed towards those channels where agencies earned the highest commission, she adds.
Ad agencies are structured around creative execution, so even when they have the aspiration to offer wider strategy, clients “were often reluctant to invite us into those conversations”, Mawdsley says. His and Angear’s business may be in its infancy, but he has already seen a shift in how clients treat them: “There are different expectations around what we’ll be able to do.”
An example of this came in 2019, when Amelia Torode, who co-founded The Fawnbrake Collective in 2017, worked with Somerset House to redefine its proposition. As well as new positioning, her team changed confusing lift signage, simplified a hierarchical laynard system and recommended the extension of wi-fi availability from 90 minutes to the whole day.
“Changing the wi-fi policy did more to set up a creative drop-in centre than putting a poster on the wall would have done. If you think of strategy as your product, then it doesn’t matter what that looks like at the end, and that’s massively liberating,” Torode says.
“At agencies I had always been taught that clients don’t pay for strategy. But what clients don’t pay for is self-serving strategy; strategy that is just creative fluffing to retrofit the ad solution.”
Myers-Lamptey argues that planning has become “very unfulfilling” at big agencies because people attach themselves to “meaty” global accounts to justify their positions. But working on such accounts is not enjoyable because people “can’t necessarily see the impact of their work… that quickly”. This frustration, he says, is a key driver for the formation of this new breed of consultancies.
Indeed, the unbundling of services is a rising trend across many industries. In adland, as the tech, tools and people required to implement an idea are more accessible to marketers, they are now able to take a more pick and mix approach to services. Multidiscipline collectives, like Harbour, have also capitalised on this with a small, senior team, who assemble specialists according to client need.
Some of the big agencies have responded. Leo Rayman set up Grey Consulting in 2018. While AMV BBDO allowed Mawdsley and Angear to handle pure strategy projects – Sainsbury’s continued to work with Mawdsley on marketing strategy, even after it moved its creative account to Wieden & Kennedy. But many are sceptical about how effective these offerings can be when they are still tied to old agency structures.
The new businesses also offer greater access to senior talent, especially for smaller clients. “I’m part strategy sounding board and part therapist. Clients have thorny problems and they want to throw ideas around with someone experienced who they can trust. They are worried about throwing ideas around internally because it looks like they are less decisive,” Scaman says.
For the most part, the new strategy consultancies are not pitching themselves against the management consultants, they are focused on the application of creativity to a business problem. This skillset will become increasingly in demand, Myers-Lamptey says.
He argues: “In a world where companies have more information on what their competitors are doing, it is harder to find a competitive advantage through traditional business levers like headcount, supply chain or distribution. Instead, the real differentiator is marketing – how a company positions itself and what consumers understand about the brand.
“Businesses need people who can understand audiences and think with a creative hat on.”