Secrets of success

Agencies are dead? Long live agencies? Chemistry’s Director Mike Larmer suggests how they can secure a more successful future for themselves (and their clients).

How many times have you read that agencies are dead, that they’re being replaced by in-house creative departments run by clients themselves? Although this may be true, I believe the future for agencies is a world of rainbows and unicorns. Let me explain why.

Recently, our agency was in conversations with one of New Zealand’s most successful global entrepreneurial brands, a brand that has been vocal over the years about how an agency relationship is not relevant. They had a major marketing issue to resolve and were looking for an agency partner – but quietly, so as not to ruin their pitch.

When the rubber hits the road and a really big problem surfaces, nine times out of 10, even clients with in-house creative ability will still come to an agency and ask for help. Which makes me quietly confident about our future. 

So how can agencies continue to be crucial to their clients’ business? I can’t profess to know all the answers, but as someone who’s been taught by the best, worked with the best and had the privilege of leading some incredibly successful agency teams in multiple countries, here are what I consider to be the ingredients for success. 

Be relevant at all times

A successful agency is one that hires people who are always hungry for knowledge. The late writer, futurist and businessman Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Successful agencies will always be those with a culture and leadership that inspires learning. I’m amazed at how often we don’t focus on this day today, or at best delegate it to one person. I was once introduced to someone whose job title was Chief Futurist and Head of Imagineering. Sad to say, that network agency has had a torrid few years. 

Don’t manage the money, manage the things that make the money

Clearly, I’m assuming the basics are well and truly locked and loaded, but it’s really easy to get suckered into chasing a forecast line and not actually think about what’s really going to grow your client’s business so you can grow your agency’s. Make sure 50 percent of time is spent on medium- to long-term organic growth, while 50 percent is on the right now. I say ‘organic growth’ (or growth from existing clients) deliberately, because that
way you don’t have to spend so much time on new business, which is time-intensive and, let’s face it, a bit of a lottery. 

Mike Larmer.

Focus on creativity that gets people to do something – your clients will love you for it 

Advertising academic Jef I Richards said, “Creativity without strategy is called art. Creative with strategy is called advertising.” And David Ogilvy said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” Our job in agency land is to build intrinsic success for our clients, and that means using our expertise to fix client problems creatively. 

Client problems come in many guises, but invariably it ultimately means selling something. The fantastic creative power we have in advertising is that the agency only exists to create a compelling narrative for the client’s brand, product or service. No one else can do that. Peter Mead, co-founder of AMV and one of the industry’s best thinkers, said a few years ago that “creativity is one of the last legal ways of gaining an advantage over our competition. The great thing about creativity is that machines can’t do it. Big data can’t do it. Sophisticated algorithms can’t do it. It’s still the magic only the human mind can supply.” 

Hire people better than you and inspire them to shape the agency culture

One of my favourite definitions is: Your brand is what they say about you when you’ve left the room. Ask yourself: What do people say about the agency when asked on a Friday night? The successful agencies I know all have a defined brand culture and have their people shape the internal culture so they’re proud of it. 

I once met someone who said the best thing about their agency was that it operated on summer hours. Imagine that – the best thing about their agency was that they didn’t need to be there as much on a Friday. Progressive agencies understand that work-life balance is now a table-stakes requirement, and they work on building something that everyone can feel part of. This pays off in happier people and happier clients. The creative work is better, and people don’t leave. 

Never be too proud to ask for help

I’ve had great bosses over the years, and they’ve taught me all I know. If I can pay it forward and share, then I feel that’s a good thing. After a monumental cock-up as a young man in London, my boss turned to me and said, “It’s okay to ask for help when you next get stuck, Mike – that’s a sign of strength”. I’ve never forgotten her words and it’s something I usually share with the people I work with at some time or other. 

In a world in which buzzwords multiply (storytelling, be kind, growth hacking – need I go on?), the biggest ingredient of success is to ask for help. And the best thing about the New Zealand advertising industry? No one will ever say no to your request.

Mike Larmer built up multiple agencies in New Zealand and the UK before setting up Chemistry, an integrated indie agency that works with Aotearoa’s best-loved brands.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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