Ad Agencies Need To Be Versatile, Not Just Big

TBWAChiatDay New York president Robert Harwood-MatthewsTBWAChiatDayTBWAChiatDay New York president Robert Harwood-Matthews.

Robert Harwood-Matthews is the president of the New York office of advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day.

As an ad agency boss — I often get asked about our ambitions in relation to scale, not financial ambitions but literally how big will we be. As though it were all a pure volume game. Were you to read the trade press, you’d be forgiven for having the same impression. It’s all about the big win, and there’s a certain patriarchal tone to it all.

This strikes me as anachronistic. We are living in an age where the business has been turned upside down by the need for specialism and yet the major players often are judged by the size of their armies. I think we should be looking more at value and connectivity as key drivers.

There is a clue, I believe, in popular culture: read any Twitter bio and see how people describe themselves. Entrepreneur/marathon runner/ awesome mum. Look at celebrities like James Franco, Pharrell, Jay Z — they are all fighting classification. It is what we are all doing and yet employers often fail to capitalise on this insight. In the current business environment and, moreover, culture, I believe that is a huge mistake.

We need to be looking left and right at our holding company partners instead and thinking laterally, encouraging our people to move across the businesses rather than simply scramble upwards. We need to build a generation of better skilled individuals in a more organic fashion — think labs, hubs, a sort of nodal network rather than a military org chart. Ultimately I think we can build more elegant solutions, but this will have a huge impact on the way we behave.

Topline growth and true value (both to clients and the agency) will come from hyperconnectivity between individuals, from hyperdeveloped talent (i.e., a wide range of skills), collaboration and the clichéd notion of trusted advisors.

It’s a new sort of collaboration, less about company level activities and NDAs and more about individuals, agility, flexibility, networks and speed.

We will need to push back on eroded valuations of time or at least add detail to phrases like FTE to represent a wider range of individual values We need to be able to defend a wider range of specialists or sell “labs.” We need to be prepared to be more rigorous in how we monitor time than retainer-based agencies have been in the past.

We’ll also obviously need to focus on mobility and the technology that enables that, on new employment contracts and workplaces that allow a less regular ebb and flow of people.

You can witness this in our business now, but there is a lot of work to be done. For all the talk there are many network agencies swimming around like sharks and hoping to win simply by being bigger or by buying ancillary companies. For me it’s a subtler, more exciting revolution in the way we work. I want to excite and develop a generation of mobile and multiskilled workers and to help maximise their value to our clients. The “slasher” generation producer/writer/technologist is here to stay and I think is showing us the way.

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