Indies versus networks – it’s time to move on from simplistic comparisons

The industry needs to break out of its pigeonholes if it's expected to soar, argues Spark Foundry CEO Imogen Hewitt.

Independent, start-up, network, franchise – you name it, I’ve worked in almost every agency type there is. And I can tell you that in every circumstance over my 20-year career, it has been the people in those agencies, not the nature of the agency ownership, that has always determined whether client-agency relationships falter or thrive.

Recently, there has been a renewed focus on the indies versus the network agencies debate. It’s an artificial argument in my opinion and one overly reliant on manufactured issues. We hear about scale vs agility, big budget vs small budget, enhanced access to key agency talent, feeling like the small fish.

Surely, in the richness of agency options now available, such simplistic comparisons are antiquated at best.

Firstly, scale is a blunt measure and one that is no longer relevant in today’s media marketplace. Smarts surpassed scale many moons ago and the ability to predict, place, measure and deliver are far more relevant benchmarks than the numbers of zeros.

Agility, the ability to move quickly, is a mindset. It is equally able to be cultivated as a core behaviour in agencies big or small. In fact, if last year proved anything about agencies, it was that the whole industry can move quickly to address the unforeseen and the unpredictable.

Access to talent and innovative thinking is both structural and philosophical. So, no matter your agency, if you don’t get prioritised, then perhaps that agency – independent or network – is not the optimal fit for you.

It’s often said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and that was certainly the case when I worked in smaller, typically independent, agencies. Often working with less robust tools, we were forced to be inventive and resourceful in the way we tackled challenges. This mentality of ‘finding a way’ breeds staff with lateral thinking and innovation baked into them.

But it’s important to note that this can be bred culturally, as well as out of necessity, which makes this kind of thinking accessible to agencies of all kinds, should the desire be there to explore it.

Agencies that choose to celebrate behaviours that facilitate innovation and creativity are no less innovative or creative as a function of their size. If size were a determinant of innovation potential, Forbes’ Most Innovative Company list has some major anomalies. Any claim that sheer size and scale limits innovative and creative thinking is both simplistic and convenient.

So too is the argument that there is less trust and transparency in the relationship when clients work with larger agencies. The reality is, in the current landscape, any agency that operates without transparency is on a short-term trajectory. It’s simple hygiene – a minimum standard and a below basic expectation.

Put simply, faltering on trust and obscured transparency is bad business.

Value alignment between agency and client, depth of understanding of a client’s business, an aligned agenda on expectations and success, and an agency leadership team motivated to create practices and processes that help people do their best work. These are the ingredients that make for brilliant client-agency experiences, whatever agency you find yourself working with or for.

The launch of the Independent Media Agencies of Australia (IMAA) last year was a welcome development. Robust, supported independent agencies are critical to a healthy industry. Competition helps industries grow – forcing innovation, creating more options for clients, placing a challenger at every turn.

But, for competition to thrive, which benefits everyone, it’s important to acknowledge that rigorous, well-run and progressive network agencies also have a crucial role to play.

The industry has more than enough room for agencies of all kinds, which is lucky, because diverse agency options are better for our people, our clients, our careers and the long-term sustainability of our industry.

Imogen Hewitt is the CEO of Spark Foundry.


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