Fergus Stoddart
This is a post by Fergus Stoddart

I’ve always struggled with the agency business model. We operate in the most competitive and dynamic market. The glamour of creative services and the non-existent barriers to entry mean that every Tom, Dick and Harry has an agency – millenials leaving uni, freelancers, consultants, tech giants and even the clients we work for! You name it – we are competing against them. And we are now all saying that we can do everything, so the competition has just grown again... fivefold. It’s survival of the fittest.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Australia. An industry colleague told me recently that Australia has 16 times the number of agencies than California – a state with a similar population.

So this level of competitive tension puts the power in our clients’ hands. They can pick and choose their agency from a plethora of options. They can choose to work on project-only work or insist on short-term contracts.  

Meanwhile, with our fee for service or hourly rates business model, we battle to maintain a margin that enables us to add the creative value that we promise. Our very tools of trade are compromised.

In these challenging times, we look for efficiencies and streamline. To sustain a profit we have to systemise our services and order the troops to operate to strict management protocol.

And then, even when we are successful winning new work and onboarding new clients we scale by adding more bodies that mean more management, more process and less spontaneity.

Agencies, despite their image of laid-back creativity, are built on authoritarian well-established power structures. Like most people attracted to agencies, I don’t like the impact of this level of authority. Not just because I hate rules, love surprises and flexibility. But most importantly, I don’t think this model will survive in our new changing reality. It’s a business reality that we need to face.

We’ve just celebrated 15 years at Edge and, looking back over that time, the change has been breathtaking.

But it’s only getting quicker.

The change we are now facing is not just rapid but constant. The periods of stability have grown shorter and shorter and contracts of any length have all but disappeared. The new reality is constant disruption and it’s our job as agencies to adapt quicker than our clients.

We’ve recently launched our agency proposition around a promise of “ Creating Relevance Relentlessly” for our clients. We have a fresh approach that helps clients adapt their communications continually to address their customers’ constantly evolving expectations. The principles are sound and challenge clients, which is being well received but the reality is that this principle is just as relevant to us as an agency and our creative industry as it is to our clients.  

To deal with this faster future one principle I’m embracing is that of Emergence over Authority.

Emergence is what happens when a multitude of little things exhibit properties beyond the ability of an individual. Think about the natural world – schooling fish or swarming locusts or the miracle of the bee-hive.

With computing power and the internet our new world mirrors an ant colony. The internet has played a key role in providing a way for the masses to not only make their voices heard, but to engage in the kind of discussion, deliberation and coordination that used to the domain of a powerful few. Knowledge is no longer cascaded down.

Amateur bloggers can challenge the authority of major news organisations. Collective intelligence across hundreds and thousands of people becomes way more powerful that individuals in power. It’s our job to embrace this.

How does it work? The new creative idea is just as likely to come from suits, our clients, a customer’s feedback, a freelance writer or the strategist as it is from the creative team.

The age-old creative structure of a copywriter and an art director is too formulaic to deal with the diverse tasks that clients are presenting agencies with. After all, are clients not looking for some ad creative and some copy?

It’s now our job to deliver conceptual ideas and customer experiences that meet consumers where they are – lots of interconnected micro moments that ladder up to a larger brand experience.

Agencies need to allow for emergent democracies where ideas and inspiration come from all areas of the office not the boardroom or a senior management off site. Hacktivists should be encouraged at all levels and we need to create outlets for those opinions and ideas to spring from.

It’s a shift away from authority where agencies chartered whatever course those in senior management deemed wise to where decisions merge from groups of employees or stakeholders.

It takes humility to break down the layers and the silos. It takes humility to take and evolve an idea that came from a client (or from a junior intern). If we tear down the walls and egos and lower the bar of entry we can encourage a more diverse and creative set of minds to contribute.  

Emergent systems presume that every individual within that system possesses unique intelligence that benefits the group and that information is shared built upon and used to innovate. Not locking ourselves away in a room and emerging a week later. It’s embracing more third parties, diverse thinking, subject matter experts, and customers. Short sharp check-ins with multi-disciplined teams. Iteration after iteration.

To take and build it out the most simple version of your idea and through rapid prototyping, test and learn campaigns and then adapting them, investing into different and bigger iterations of that ideas. The simple social post gets people talking and becomes the next TV ad. Test and learn with a simple article before creating a video. Create a simple animation or a infographic before develop the research. Test with small audiences and use those groups to feedback and them build again.

And getting our clients to embrace real-time emergence in action – building in a quick customer feedback loop to test the validity of ideas or experiences.

It’s our job to build tools of scalable co-operation to advance the collective value that an agency can provide. Yes, the client may take it back in house to iterate. Yes the client might get the first customer insight. But if the relationship is fluid and healthy enough, it should be a win for everyone.

Authoritarian systems enable incremental change. No agency who wants to survive the next 15 years can adapt at that pace. Emergent systems foster the kind of non-linear innovation and creativity that allow agencies to react quickly to the rapid changes that our networked world requires.