I don’t think it would be unprecedented of me to talk in an unprecedented way about the unprecedented challenges we are all facing in these unprecedented times.
One response to this (unprecedented?) set of circumstances has been the rise of collective action and the acceleration of collaboration—between industries, brands and latterly, rather tentatively, agencies.
In recent weeks, we have seen loads of examples of businesses and brands setting aside their traditional practices and working together for the common good. Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, writing in The Guardian this month, noted the trend was on the rise in all areas of society.
Naturally, this starts with the more acutely Covid-19-specific challenges. We have seen landmark collaborations between Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca and University of Oxford, pooling resources to search for a vaccine. We have seen the creation of the academic rapid review initiative to speed up the traditionally glacial-paced work of peer-reviewing of academic papers on Covid-19.
The next collective actions have come in the form of brands partnering organisations to help deliver personal protective equipment or other related materials for front-line workers. The best of these has been the Mercedes Formula One team collaboration with University College London to develop a breathing device in a matter of days and weeks. Collaborations have also taken the form of my old friends at Sipsmith partnering Imperial College to quietly turn waste alcohol into medical-grade hand sanitiser. Obviously, lots of other brands such as LVMH have also partnered medical bodies to provide equally useful products not traditionally associated with the brand.
There have also been interesting collective actions between brands themselves. Deliveroo and Morrisons have come together to allow customers to order from 70 essential household items for on-demand delivery. Aldi and McDonald's in Germany have collaborated on a staff-sharing deal to redeploy workers who might otherwise have been laid off. Ukactive and Nike united to create a pretty cool set of daily "activity missions" to keep kids active through a joint initiative called Move Crew. Vogue and Amazon have done some cool stuff together, too, as have the National Gallery with Ocean Outdoor (pictured, top). There are loads more of these interesting partnerships, showing there is a growing understanding that the way we solve the big problems is to set egos and agendas aside and work together.
One great recent example in our industry – although slightly disappointing that it had to come "bottom up" rather than "top down" – was the launch of the really rather brilliant Not Fur'Long collective: some enterprising folks from Dark Horses putting potentially dormant talent to work on pro-bono projects. I know from mates who are part of it that it’s useful, fun and productive. I think the recent VoxComm initiative is also a strong example of movement in the right direction as a result of the pandemic.
There have been some encouraging signs that our industry is finally waking up to the benefits of collectivism (even before Covid). We at Harbour Collective have been big exponents of this way of working for a while – the clue is in the name. Other examples include collectives such as Hello Finch, Beyond or Pimento. I even saw that maybe WPP was starting to see the benefits with the launch of Black Ops.
There are some interesting freelance networks such as The Fawnbrake Collective or Been There, Done That, or international examples such as Speakeasy, Co-Collective or Dawn. This is all growing evidence of a trend of clients wanting to work in more flexible ways, by accessing a wide variety of talent, rather than a closed shop of the same team from the same agency on every brief. This is being turbocharged by the timing and budget challenges that all clients are now facing for the foreseeable future.
I’ve seen lots of articles from agency leaders recently that seem to suggest a few of them, too, have become latter-day converts to collective working. Quite an epiphany from an industry that has been traditionally really bad at collaborating together. But if it takes a pandemic to get people working together better, then at least something good can come out of all this.
It’s not before time that agencies are waking up to the power of acting collectively. Clients have been encouraging it for a long time, but some of the more traditional process (and especially attitudes) have tended to get in the way. One of the few positive consequences of Covid-19, I hope, will be the adoption of more open and collaborative creativity.
Our industry is traditionally awful at collaborating. Agencies often pretend to collaborate with other partners when forced to by the client, but they are not traditionally very good at it. Agencies do tend to be OK when they have to work alongside other partners, but only if they are implementing their "big" idea. This behaviour has come about because the ad agency was traditionally the "lead creative" agency. They were the ones who came up with the idea and then the retail agency got to draw it on a box/bag and the PR agency had to somehow get people interested in the concept without the attention bribe of media spend. The ad agency took 90% of the "deck" time and left the remaining scraps for media, with the other agency work normally relegated to the appendix if they were lucky.
Agencies might be waking up, slowly and tentatively, to the benefits of collaboration with specialist partners, rather than sticking to the one-stop-shop model of yesteryear. If one good thing comes out of the challenges of the past few months, it is hopefully people being more willing to work together.
Sitting at the heart of a collective of independent specialist agencies has really brought home to me the cumulative and additive nature of actually properly working in collaboration with expert partners. An idea can be so much more powerful when it is truly delivered by experts in their field, rather than an ad agency playing at doing content, digital, experiential or branding.
And these collaborations are also more effective when they are positive choices rather than enforced by clients or holding companies (I know from experience that those are always a disaster for all involved).
Collaboration is best when it comes from a place of shared respect, synergistic skills and an open attitude to embrace challenging each other to create better shared outcomes. It’s not just forcing people to work in the same room to save a few quid – which has been the traditional network view of "collaboration".
The power of collective thinking is proven. The benefits of the sharing of specialist thinking and expert execution are not in doubt. But traditional models, egos and working practices have always got in the way of agencies really collaborating effectively with each other.
Maybe now is the time. The age of collective action could and should finally be upon us. Better answers – for agencies, clients and society at large – lie that way.
Kevin Chesters is strategy partner at Harbour Collective