Opinion

Naked Communications faces the sad fact that being clever doesn’t make money any more

Tim BurrowesNaked – the agency that once terrified the global media agency networks by out-thinking them – is dropping its last unique piece of DNA, argues Tim Burrowes.

The most depressing thing I’ve read today came in the latest annual report from industry holding group Enero.   

Enero annual reportPublished yesterday, Enero’s annual report offers an accentuating-the-positive state of play on each of its key agencies. These days, the organisation once known as Photon Group describes itself as a “boutique network of marketing and communications businesses”.

Ad agency BMF is repositioning around the vision of “long ideas”; Hotwire PR is looking to the US; research company The Digital Edge is doing lots of, um, research; Jigsaw Research has got a “fresh new team”; The Leading Edge is “navigating complexity”; Frank PR is going to get into “SEO-PR”. And so on, goes the report.

In many ways, it’s heartening that there is still one group headquartered in Australia that aspires to have a global reach.

NakedBut it was in the lukewarm write-up about Naked that made my heart sink. It was all talk of “re-aligned cost base”, “stabilised revenue” and profitability, until it got to the final paragraph. It said:

“In the next financial year we’ll continue our momentum, completing our transition from being “thinkers” to “makers”.

You see, when Naked launched in the UK in 2000, it changed the communications world. It did the same to the local market when it launched in Australia three or four years later.

The founders of Naked pointed to the fact that the media agency model worked against marketers. When agencies stood to get the biggest rebates by putting their clients onto TV schedules, the answer in every media plan was, not surprisingly, television. As a result, media agencies didn’t feel the need to offer particularly clever or innovative thinking.

But what if marketers hired a “media neutral” agency to do their media thinking for them? Just thinking, not execution. Like those rare non-scumbag financial planners who aren’t being bribed by the financial services companies they recommend, a client could actually get a better return on the marketing investment.

If the agency doesn’t stand to gain by pushing a client on a particular course, then the advice would better. But the agency offering that advice would have to be smart as hell.

And along came Naked to offer that service. What made them different was that they were only “thinkers”.

Not so young any more... Ferrier, Wilson and Baxter reunited at this year's Mumbrella Awards

Not so young any more… Ferrier, Wilson and Baxter reunited at this year’s Mumbrella Awards

And it worked. Marketers got innovative thinking. Naked showed that it understood the value of earned media as part of a wider media strategy before anyone was even calling it earned media.

And Naked scared the hell out of their media agency competitors.

Along the track, Naked became an Australian-owned company when Photon acquired it.

But market forces ensured that Naked’s moment was a passing one. The media agencies improved their strategic capabilities, and gave it away for free. So clients didn’t need to pay a second time.

From then on, it was only a matter of time. Which brings us to this repositioning by Enero – thinkers no more.

It’s not the fault of the agency, or Enero. If the market won’t pay for the thing that makes you great, then you have to be something else, or go out of business.

So it looks like Naked is going to be that something else: a “maker”.

While “maker” has become overused hipster jargon for DIY and craft, I presume that what they mean is an ad agency, creating ads. Kind of like everyone else. But perhaps facing tougher odds against creating great creative work because of not having a deep creative heritage within the agency.

naked maker

 

Which is a pity, because I wonder if Naked could only have hung on, whether it would have had a second coming as an agency of thinkers.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a piece of strategy work from a media agency that was really inspiring. I think they’ve gone off the boil.

Which either means there’s a gap in the market for a Naked 2, or it may mean that media agencies are failing to tell the world what they’re capable of.

(Looking down today’s shortlist for the Media Federation Awards, I was surprised by how little of the work rang a bell, so it is possible there is great thinking going on that isn’t getting the publicity. But it is a pretty small number of agencies on that list.)

And it also strikes me that it is interesting to trace the paths of the three local founders of Naked, who have thrived in the years since they left.

They are all back in traditional agencies. Mat Baxter is currently CEO of the media agency that claims it’s not a media agency UM (and industry gossip expects him to follow his boss Henry Tajer to New York any day now although he denies it); Adam Ferrier is at creative agency (and occasional full service offering) Cummins & Partners; and Mike Wilson is boss of Havas Media.

And wouldn’t you know it – all three of their current agencies made it onto the MFA shortlist. No work from Naked is on that list though.

Which raises the question: where is the next model-busting agency going to come from?

There’ve been a few that have successfully tweaked the model. Creative agency Happy Soldiers was strategy led but closed when the partners fell out. The Hallway has successfully put digital thinking at the heart of its offering.

And Emotive – unusually, owned by a media company, APN – is on the map thanks to its recent work for the likes of Optus and Subway. With Collective, blending data with creativity will be worth watching. I’m also watching the newer Common Ventures, which positions itself as “a strategic and creative agency” with interest.

Regardless, for its survival, the communications industry needs that next model to emerge. The creative agency model is creaking. Media agencies struggle to cleanly deliver to their global owners the profit levels they demand. PR agencies risk having their lunch eaten if they don’t start taking seriously the invaders who want a slice of earned media.

And therein lies a potential answer I think – there’s a slice of territory to be had sitting between the media/ creative agencies and the PR world that remains no-man’s land.

And in all this, marketers find themselves mired in greater complexity than ever before, and with less certainty about what works than ever before.

Yet it feels that most agencies are ill equipped to help them by having enough clever thinkers who can offer that rigorous strategic thinking they desperately need. Perhaps in time, marketers will once again be willing to pay for that. I wonder if the next Naked is out there somewhere?

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

 

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