Why being an independent agency makes a whole lot more sense right now

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WELLINGTON, Today: The Media Lab partner Antony Young (Linkedin calls him a “communications chemist”) has penned a piece about the joys of independence (scroll down to read the full story).

“As you know,” he wrote to M+AD,” we’ve been going through a few changes – thanks for reporting our news last month on changing our name (and business model) to The Media Lab.

“It’s been fantastic to get the feedback, and the phone has been ringing since then. 

“We are enjoying being independent, and back in the media agency game and the chance to work more actively with independent creatives.

“Something came over me, and I wrote this opinion piece. It wasn’t written to be contentious, but giving it the read-through the second time over, it might be. But hey, I’m sure it would get a bit of comment!

Indie and proud of it!

By Antony Young
I’m a product of the global agency holding company world. I spent most of my career at the likes of Publicis Groupe and WPP running agencies in New York, London and across Asia.  

It was largely a satisfying career. I got to work on some of the world’s biggest and best-known brands and enjoyed the rewards of travelling the globe largely at the company’s expense! 

Contrasting that life with being a co-founder of an independent agency has been eye opening.

People at an independent agency really do come first
I recall having an all company offsite in London and inviting my global ceo to attend. His first comment looking into the room, admittedly in jest, was, “woah, that’s a lot of head count.”

I replied, “we prefer to call them people.”

Large global agencies like to espouse ‘People First’, but as one global agency casualty lamented, when it comes to the global networks, “PEOPLE are the FIRST to go.”

When Covid hit, the big agency groups predictably cut literally thousands of jobs.

They are now on a hiring bend, and they wonder why it’s hard to recruit people back to their agencies.

When Covid first hit, my partner Matt McNeil and I agreed that we look after all our staff and pay ourselves if there is anything left over.

Most independent shops I spoke to chose to do the same.

Independent shops focus on clients, not the numbers
Running a network agency, I always really felt the pressures of monthly financial reporting. Dictates would come from head office: … freeze hires … delay pay raises until the next quarter … this is a must-win pitch.

Someone in New York, London or Singapore is making calls that often don’t make any sense if you’re on the ground.

If only clients knew how much time was wasted by agency network management discussing budgets or preparing a case to a global CFO for an small pay raise for a planner in Auckland, they’d be shocked.

Running an independent agency there’s an understanding that you will have black months and red months. You ride out the good years and bad ones. It means that management are focusing on prioritising clients and the work, rather than the quarterly EBITDA.

Independent means acting independent
When you’re part of a big agency group, management is incentivised to cross-sell the services of the holding company.

As part of a global network, an agency is regularly required to take on an international or group client often at poor compensation terms with no relief to your annual budget.

In that case it’s a Lose-Lose. The client in question gets an inferior service and/or other clients at the agency see their team diverted to support that global network client.

Being an independent agency means you choose your clients and partners for the right reasons.

If we have a client that needs the services we don’t specialise in, we will recommend another similar independent company we know has the right expertise and are confident they will be looked after.

No clipping of the ticket or quid pro quo. We, like many independents, operate this way because our reputation to local clients can’t escape us. Our business grows entirely through word of mouth, not because of global alignment or the scale of our billings.  

Doesn’t being independent, just mean small?
Sometimes it will. Of course, being smaller has its advantages – no international head office, APAC regional management, group finance director or global account directors to report into.

None of their overheads either. So our focus is on our own people and our clients.

It’s true, we don’t have hundreds of staff. But most clients don’t need that many people on their account. They need quality. They want experience. They look to a close-knit tight team that’s locked in, accountable, with the ability to cut to the chase.

And when it comes to being at an agency, it is better being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.  

We love being independent. Starting and running an independent agency isn’t for the faint hearted.  You need a balance of confidence and humbleness.  But there is enormous freedom and satisfaction in operating your own agency. And for clients so often a better experience.

About The Media Lab
Antony Young is a co-founder of The Media Lab (formerly The Digital Café), a large Wellington’s independent media agency. He spent 20 years heading media and digital agencies in New York, London and Asia, before returning to New Zealand in 2016.

He is also a blueberry farmer in the Horowhenua.

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