The last time Florian Adamski came to Cannes was when his agency emerged from one of the worst years in its history. That was Back in 2018, shortly after he’d been made CEO of OMD Worldwide.
Flo made a brief fly-by visit before heading back to oversee the massive global reorganization of talent, technology and products that would take the agency back to the top of the new business charts by the end of that year.
With the latest COMvergence projections showing OMD on track for an industry-leading growth rate of 4.4% in 2019, Adamski can breathe slightly better at this year’s festival. But he’s hypersensitive to the dangers that come with being complacent—something agencies and brands alike can no longer afford to be.
Campaign US cornered the 41-year-old in between his packed schedule of Meditarrean schmoozing.
Earlier this year you said, "I think a lot of agency people have forgotten that we don’t have an inherent right to exist." What did you mean by that?
I think our industry has a blind spot when it comes to our own relevance. We think that because we have always been, we will always be. It’s akin to the "too big to fail" thinking that defined the 2008 economic crash.
To put this in perspective, ask yourself where Walmart would be today if they had opted to rely on their scale and heritage rather than adapting their model in the wake of the burgeoning ecommerce movement early in this century. Or if TV networks had simply said "nothing will ever replace live TV" and hadn’t responded to the advent of streaming services by developing their own streaming channels?
But for some reason when it comes to agencies, the thinking often seems to be that if we are winning we don’t have to think about future-proofing our offer or updating our model to align with where the market is going. That was certainly the case for OMD when I joined in 2017—having been on an almost decade-long winning streak, we had become a casualty of our success.
Benign neglect had left us with an irrelevant offer and ineffective structure. Our situation was best summed up by that great quote in the movie Moneyball, when Brad Pitt’s character’s suggestion for using data algorithms to build a baseball roster is met with derision. His response: "evolve or die." We chose to evolve.
Should agencies evolve more toward the consultancy model?
Speaking for OMD, I wouldn’t want to see us pivot from our essential offer of great creative and strategic minds leveraging the best technology to deliver better decisions, faster. I think the issue is more about the perception gap. Clients see consultancies as cost-savers, whereas agencies are cost-drivers—even though we charge significantly less for our services.
So we as an industry need to do a better job at defining the differences. In restructuring, OMD we adopted some of the best features of the consultancy model—such as replicable processes, products and methods. But we remain essentially a talent-driven, idea business.
Does Cannes perpetuate or challenge the inherent right theory?
I think that’s a false choice. The idea of giving ourselves awards for our creativity certainly suggests a certain degree of arrogance and inherent right. Yet outside of the Palais the conversations taking place between agencies and clients, agencies and publishers, tech partners and platforms, are all about effectiveness.
To the extent that Cannes understands the need to balance the two mandates it validates its existence. Otherwise it’s just a very expensive spring break for working people. At the same time, agencies need to keep things in perspective as well. A Cannes Lion recognizes a moment in time – after all, in and of itself a campaign is by its very nature a one-off burst of genius. The bigger goal must be sustained effectiveness over time.
How do you view the relationship between data and creativity?
I think there’s a fundamental misperception in the role that data plays in creativity. The best creative is both inspired and informed. Data can inform an inspired idea, but it can’t replace it. Conversely, an inspired idea is ineffective without the context that data enables.
Reconciling information and inspiration requires a combination of people, process and platform—at OMD our teams all use a process called OMD Design to leverage the data from our Omni data platform to understand what consumers do, like, and want. And then we add another layer of understanding, looking at the consumer through the prism of empathy.
Adding empathy to our process has enabled a richer understanding of consumers’ unmet needs and untapped desires that define the strategic opportunity. Whereas insights tell what we can do, empathy tells us what we should do in terms of how, when and where a brand communicates with its consumers.
So far, we’ve covered about evolution, effectiveness and empathy. Throw us another "e" word that describes the industry’s current state.
How about "existential?" We as an industry are facing an existential threat on multiple fronts. Between them, the biggest consultancy brands have spent more than $1.2b acquiring marcom agencies. While they are not yet a factor in the majority of pitches, they are clearly playing a long game.
So the threat is real—but it’s not simply an external threat. Agencies are as much at risk from internal inertia as we are from external actions. Put in geopolitical terms, clinging to our old models in the face of new competition is akin to counting the number of torpedoes we have while we watch an aggressor nation openly stockpile uranium.
Combining this new competitive set with ongoing environmental challenges—data privacy, ad fraud, transparency—I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that our industry is a crisis point. However, as President John Kennedy once pointed out, the Chinese character for the word crisis combines the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." Plan for the danger and you’ll reap the opportunity.