Cliched as it is, ‘agility’ is driving change in media agencies

The a-word is a buzzword, but an industry necessity, writes Speed managing partner Ian Perrin.

Naming an agency is an emotional and surprisingly difficult thing to do. We settled on Speed for the simple reason that we wanted to accelerate our client’s business performance.

Given everyone else was focused on driving down rates and delivering monolithic media plans, there appeared to be a gap in the market for a media agency to focus on the other side of the ledger, growth and dynamism. But our main concern with the name was the association with the hackneyed and over-used term of “agility”.  

And while the term is still galling, five years on it’s obvious that media agencies that have embraced agile operating models have thrived, while those still focused on the same cookie cutter approach of trading media as a commodity are in trouble. So, it’s important to understand what “agility” means within the context of media agencies and the three ways it can be deployed to improve performance.

  • Structural Agility. My favourite TV show of all time is West Wing, which follows a fictional US President named Jed Bartlett, and one of the seminal moments of the story is when going through some traumatic times, his chief of staff puts a post-it note up on a board that says, “Let Bartlett be Bartlett”. It was a simple way of saying that streamlined decision making and cutting out the noise leads to better decision making. 

The same is true of media agencies, because to respond quickly to their client’s needs, they can’t do so with overwrought bureaucracy and multiple decision makers. Running a multi-national media agency, I had three bosses all in different countries who were responsible for different brands within the group.

Archaic structural dynamics such as these paralyse effective decision making. If a team needs more resource, more training, more analytics capability then it’s critical that days or more likely months aren’t spent waiting for global approval. It’s a very simple reason why independent agencies have performed so well recently.  

  • Procedural Agility. Every client requires a totally different solution, and even for us as a small agency responding quickly to different needs is difficult. Different analytics requirements, dashboarding views, media models, trading approaches etc and there is no simple approach that works for all. You can’t commit an annual percentage of your agency or group budget to a supplier and then hope like hell that allocation suites every one of your clients.

And obviously technology is changing so quickly, so it is simply easier to buy the latest kit straight off the shelf, trial it and learn quickly, rather than building something yourself. A global dashboarding solution with “inputs” from 110 markets might sound good in a pitch but is likely to be forgotten about soon after.  

  • Human Agility. Top-down dictatorial management was on its last legs before COVID, but the pandemic has been the needed catalyst for sweeping changes in how we manage our people. Talented people don’t want regimented rules and programmes as to what they can and cannot do, they want flexibility to work at their very best. They want to learn and develop based on their needs, not what the company has mandated. 

Too many agencies try too hard by coming up with hundreds of policies that they think sounds good in PR releases and for award submissions. But the reality is people perform better if they are given the authority to make decisions on their own.  

So, while it is easy to turn your nose up at the buzzword of agility, it is a critical factor driving the evolving nature of media agencies. Understanding what it means will help clients to drive faster and ultimately better investment decisions.  

Ian Perrin is a managing partner at Speed.


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