A return to full service? What is M&C Saatchi’s plan in supercharging its strategy unit?

M&C Saatchi now has one of the biggest strategy departments in Australia as it moves to a more ‘full service’ approach for brands. Miranda Ward sat down with the agency’s head of strategy Justin Graham to talk through the strategy behind it.

M&C Saatchi has made no secret of the fact it has been beefing up its strategy and planning department over the last 12 months, however many in the industry were surprised to hear the agency’s latest hire, Ross Berthinussen as group strategy director, had swelled the ranks of the team to 35. It’s a move which has many wondering whether the agency is looking to put the genie back in the bottle and go ‘full service’.

“If clients are coming to us to solve business problems we want to be able to solve whatever problem that may be through the lens of creativity,” said department head Justin Graham.

“And it’s not just advertising problems that get advertising solutions, that’s where we have a point of differentiation in the market that we’re all sitting here together in a central unit and we can deploy the resources as needed around those problems,” Graham said when quizzed on if the beefed up strategy department signalled a change in the agency’s positioning.

“So yes, full service, working with our clients. Full service can mean anything these days, it might be new retail environments, it might be a social strategy or an implementation of that, it might be community management or brand design.”

The agency has not skimped on the talent it has gone after either, with Berthinussen coming from BBH London, hot on the heels of the agency picking up Kate Smithers in a similar role from Ogilvy & Mather in London.

Led by Graham, who joined M&C from Droga5 at the end of last year, the strategy team now stands at 35,  which includes 11 members of the innovation unit led by Ben Cooper.

It emerged during the hotly contested Commonwealth Bank media pitch earlier this year that the strictly ‘traditional’ creative agency had ambitions in the media space, signalling its shifting positioning by throwing its hat into the ring as a contender. The move led to speculation that the agency was moving towards a full-service offering, with the beefed up the strategy department fuelling the rumours.

But Graham remained coy when asked whether the agency is looking to hire media buyers.

“I think we’re all running towards what channel neutrality means for people,” he said.

“We need smart channel thinkers in here and we’ll continue to think about what the means. Clients are leaning on us and asking for help and asking for us to lean in and work with the channel strategists that exist within media organisations because the lines are very much blurred.

“The interesting thing is where we are now. It’s not about media people coming into a creative agency or vice versa, it’s actually about forming a new way of working,” Graham continued.

“For us, we have one very simple tool that we work with from a strategy point of view and that’s getting down to a brutal, simplicity of truth. It’s something that started right from Maurice (Saatchi, founder of M&C Saatchi) and the guys when they started the company and how that brutal simplicity of thought should be able to transcend a creative idea, a channel idea, whatever it might be.

“The ideas we have in this business, the contagious ideas that we have been able to deliver, are as much about content as they are about context and we’ve the thinking to go and do that now.

“We’ll just continue to push where the opportunities are,” Graham added.

Coming into the agency in January, Graham spent time with CEO Jaimes Leggett and executive creative director Ben Welch in examining what the agency needed from its strategy department.

“There’s a lot of very strategic creative directors here and that’s exciting to work with. But, what we didn’t have was enough of the spark, enough of the rigour, enough of the forward thinking so we’d be steps ahead in terms of trends, business analysis, analysing data, whatever it might be to start in a better place and work with clients on more than just advertising problems,” he said.

“Coming to M&C Saatchi there was a big challenge, it was really recognised in this market as a really consistent operation. It’s done some brilliant work over the years, it knows how to make some big brand platforms and protect those platforms.

“Some great creative and account management but probably just not well known in the industry for its strategic offering, which is unusual because globally M&C Saatchi is known as being a great strategic agency,” Graham said.

He continued: “It was to say if clients are coming to us to solve business problems and those business problems are fairly meaty considering we work on some of the biggest brands in the country, certainly the most valuable brand in the country in Commbank, right down to some small brands that are looking for that leadership, then what would a talent pool look like that could work together on that.”

It was this that sparked the recent hiring spree to swell the strategic ranks.

“It’s been a real mix of bringing people together, and yes we have hired a number of strategists. I think we have picked up an unfair share of the best global talent, from a strategy perspective, coming in here,” Graham said.

“But that’s purposeful as well because we have significant pieces of business that provide genuine challenges and I’ve been able to attract people who’ve been able to push what is a strategy offering in a big organisation these days.”

The massing of ranks has seen the formation of a central strategy unit within the M&C Saatchi group of agencies, able to work across the various agencies under the M&C Saatchi umbrella including Re, Sports and Entertainment, Lida and Mark.

“M&C Saatchi has ten agencies sitting within these walls, with some core specialisations,” Graham said.

“What we’ve been able to do is say we’ve got a central strategy unit, a central creative unit and a central production unit. And the central strategy unit is where we house everyone who is thinking strategically around pieces of business whether they’re brand planners or experience strategists or data strategists.

“We have a strong customer engagement strategy offering which is coming through Lida, we have brand strategists in the purer sense, a number of people sitting within Re, our brand design agency. Then we have social strategists as well as social and content people,” he summed up.

Whilst the most recent additions to the strategy team have come from overseas – with Berthinussen being English and Smithers returning home after a long stint overseas – Graham is adamant it is not a sign of a lack of strategic talent locally.

“I’m the vice chair of the APG (Account Planning Group) and I think there are some brilliant strategists here, some really pragmatic strategists,” he said when asked on the issue.

“There were a couple of needs we went after and it’s always great when you have an Australian who wants to come home in the form of Kate Smither, or Sophie Ales and Ross Berthinussen is the BBH veteran and he’s the one who wanted to come to Australia.

“We’ve also hired a number of strategists from agencies here. Certainly, we’ve tipped more to the local market than globally. Part of this is we work with some big, iconic Australian brands,” Graham said.

Miranda Ward


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