John Preston is the founder and CEO of Match Media, which won gold last year and bronze this year in the Australia Media Agency of the Year category at Campaign Asia-Pacific's Agency of the Year awards. Matt O'Sullivan is the managing director of Open, which won Silver in the New Zealand Media Agency of the Year category this year. Campaign Asia-Pacific talked with both leaders (in separate conversations, compiled here) about the keys to the success of their own and other independent agencies in the Oceania region.
How has the scene of independent media agencies changed in your market?
O'Sullivan: New Zealand's media industry used to be based on discounts and volume trading, which were really played into the hands of the big multinationals. However, the focus has been changed in recent years and clients want better strategic thinking, which generally comes to life in the form of insight development, channel planning, communications strategy and media creativity. This plays to the strengths of independents as some of New Zealand's best media thinkers sit outside of the networks, and also because scale has little influence over quality.
Preston: In Australia, apart from Match, the independents like Paykel and Pearman, which are media planning and buying centric, have been around for a long time. A few new players have joined in the recent years, such as Slingshot Media and Bohemia (partly owned by STW Group).
There is a lot of pressure on network agencies in Australia, as clients’ appetite is changing. Big multinationals are no longer their one-stop shop. They are willing to throw a wild card, looking at smaller, niche agencies.
What are the specific benefits for a client in choosing an independent agency over a huge corporation or network?
O'Sullivan: Clients make this decision themselves, and they need very little reminding of the pros and cons of each. A good independent agency has resource that is really well-optimised to create value for clients, largely because they don’t have the regional processes that take senior people away from the coal face. Another thing is staff turnover. As a general rule good independents have more ability to retain their good staff. This is always a big issue for clients.
Preston: Independents have a vested interest in performance of clients’ businesses. They are service oriented with resource to cover service offering and clients’ needs. Their nimbleness enables them to make quick strategic decisions, without seeking approvals from regional or global head offices.
Independents usually have a stronger and more stable management, as well as loyal staff, which make sure consistent service for clients. Their company cultures are lived and breathed 100 per cent by staff, unlike big network agencies, which have to follow a global positioning.
This is a service industry, but network agencies have lost sight of that and focussed more on themselves. Also, clients are frustrated that they only see agencies’ senior people, who usually do show-and-go during the pitch process, when there are problems. This would lead clients to question agencies’ commitment to businesses.
How is your previous working experience with network agencies influencing your creative abilities today?
O'Sullivan: An enormous amount. I've always believed you cannot run an independent agency without understanding how the big agency model works. And that takes experience at senior levels, not just six or seven years in the intermediate ranks. Big agency experience teaches you discipline, the value of process when it’s needed, and how to work with large clients. Without it you wouldn’t know what part of the mould to break without acting like a cowboy.
Preston: I learnt how to run a business on someone else’s money, and managing your cash flow by working closely with the finance team when I was the MD at TBWA. Added to that my ethos going into business on my own was to manage your integrity, simplify and speed up decision making process, as well as invest time and effort into the people that make up your company.
With the Match culture evolving, I have also learned to be really open with the team, give regular updates on the agency performance and to allow the team to be free to ask any question that they want about Match.
What’s the key challenge for an independent agency to succeed in getting international clients with a global footprint?
O'Sullivan: We work in a people and talent industry. Clients should make sure they appoint the best people and skill sets for the job in every market. When this doesn’t come to the fore, independent agencies can struggle because the emphasis is on 'black box tools', 'regional best practice' and 'transferable learnings'. In reality very little of this stuff, which may sound impressive during a pitch, travels well from one market to the other.
Preston: When an independent approaches an international client, it needs to make sure that’s what the agency wants for its business; and then talks to the intermediate that helps the client with the pitch. However, the only way you will get on the radar is by doing good works and delivering good results, which will give the client more confidence. You also need one or two global clients before others come on board without asking questions. Last but not least, the agency needs to have quality services and people, as well as resources to ensure that it can deliver the work.
Does the ownership status of an agency have a part to play in the quality of work being produced?
O'Sullivan: Absolutely. It’s mostly from an emotional point of view. When you work in a network agency, most staff members think they are there to uphold whatever standards are already in place (good or bad). In an independent the philosophy driving the work is quite different. The onus is on everyone to make it better and constantly raise the bar, because they are doing it for themselves and each other, not a brand with a head office in New York or London. This is much easier to get people to take ownership over what they do every day.
Preston: It shouldn’t matter the quality of work being produced behind its doors. It all comes down to the quality of people existing in the business. A slight edge that independents have is that people at an independent agency are a bit braver and fiercer in putting forward an idea, and challenging their clients. They have spirit of entrepreneurship.
How can successful independents cash in on their success?
O'Sullivan: Reach goals you set for yourself; doing it your own way; maintain the sense of control; and keep the promise they made to clients as an independent agency.
Preston: Agency leaders need to have passion for what he/she does and the business. You also need a good grip of people to contribute to growth of business. Stay flexible with the business and be ready to adapt to market changes. Build a company culture. Overall, you need to be willing to change, invest and take risk.