In this Q&A, Scott Knox, President & CEO, Institute of Communication Agencies and Jamie Matthews CEO of independent agency Initials, will be delving into the current challenges North American agencies face, particularly after the pandemic. This gives us the opportunity to use these insights to highlight learnings for agencies in the UK.
Scott was previously Managing Director at the Marketing Agencies Association (an earlier incarnation of the Alliance of Independent Agencies), the trade body association for independent agencies. Five years ago, he was headhunted to run the equivalent of the IPA in Canada and since then, has been aggressively pushing the agenda for both independent and networked agencies in Canada, North America, and the wider global field.
Jamie and Scott will be focusing on effectiveness, talent, as well as independence versus network-based agencies and how they’ve responded to the pandemic.
JM: What have you been up to in the last five years, Scott?
SK: Quite a lot of different things. I had very little previous experience in media agencies, so had to get my head around that really quickly. I moved house twice, got together with some of the other associations around the world (4A’s, EACA, IPA etc.) and launched the agency version of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), which again, wasn’t easy.
JM: Have you taken your rebel-type character with you to Canada?
SK: Yes, I did. But it actually tripped me up, I had a sort of ‘18 months living in Canada’ wobble. I love being here – the people, the kids’ education and so on. However, there’s quite a lot of passive-aggressive here. You often don’t find out that people think your idea was bad until about three weeks after, via someone else. It’s not direct. That was a bit of a curveball and really took the wind out of my sails.
But over time, the market really came around. I think the more unique you are, the more you’re centred on yourself, and the more you trust yourself, you’ll ultimately be better for it. Don’t allow those negative voices either outside or inside your head to throw you off curve either, stick to your guns.
JM: So, five years into it, you’ve survived, but how about the effects of the pandemic?
SK: What was really staggering was that the pandemic gave people a sense of purpose and our membership actually increased dramatically during this time. People trusted that we would advocate and wouldn’t stop – they knew that we had their backs. And so over that period, the pandemic sort of threw the associations into a new spotlight.
JM: That’s interesting as it brings us nicely onto the next question. During the pandemic, we saw the trade body essentially become the information source for a lot of agencies. Would you agree?
SK: I got myself involved with lots of different organisations including the WHO and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, I was attending sessions about two weeks before Canada went into lockdown, gaining an idea of what was coming.
We discussed how we could maximise the feeling of the community ahead of the pandemic fully kicking in. I then played the information back to member agencies. Firstly, to the agency C-Suite to say; “Look, this is what you need to know is coming”. The other group that I started sharing information with was planners. From an agency perspective, the pandemic meant that all the red tape between clients and agencies was removed. Brands needed agencies to work quickly to gain insights and information, whilst changing the narrative in real-time in order to react to the challenges consumers were facing.
JM: Did agencies/members want to hear honest feedback and the truth during this time?
SK: I mean, yes, and no. I could see numbers declining in our CEO meetings. From a mental health point of view, we had to try and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. But the fact of the matter is, we’ve seen agencies, we’ve seen associations across the world go to the wall, right? That’s the reality, because of the pandemic and clients making business decisions, critical business decisions that will impact you.
The pandemic elevated the marketing profession, management consultancies and other players in our field were side-lined entirely. They didn’t understand what consumers were thinking, as that’s our job.
Our resilience has been challenged. We need to know that and accept that it’s going to continue to be challenged for the next few years.
JM: Talk to us about VoxComm. Why did you feel having a voice for the agency sector was needed?
SK: We needed somebody to have a voice, in opposition at times or in conjunction with the World Federation of Advertisers. Now we have 39 countries involved in VoxComm. Finding out what’s been happening in other countries has been fascinating, particularly during the pandemic, but also because of the changing nature of client-agency relationships.
Tamara Daltroff, head of the EACA, is president, and I’m treasurer – we’ve also just created our first board.
JM: From a VoxComm point of view, it would be interesting to hear about the common themes you’re seeing across markets, as well as the differences?
SK: I think the most interesting thing was procurement being side-lined during the pandemic. The barriers between clients and agencies shifted because we all had to work at hyper speed. Marketing was upgraded at the boardroom table and really empowered at the C-Suite.
So far in 2021, the number of new business reviews has skyrocketed globally. I can’t help but feel this is procurement trying to find their way back to the table. I also think it’s about clients trying to beat down incumbents. We need to be purposeful as agencies and decide whether we play ball.
For many years, we have debated and discussed who we are and why we exist. It’s horrible that it took a pandemic to shine a spotlight on the value of agencies.
But, I’ve seen too many agencies discount in response to client “pandemic budget issues,” DON’T, stick to your guns, global share prices are at all-time highs. If you do, at least recognise this as a one-off discount on invoices, otherwise next year you’ll be negotiating up from your pandemic prices.
We may get onto having a conversation about networks versus independence, we could even discuss Manchester versus London, or Vancouver versus Toronto – but you’d be looking at the wrong issues. It does not matter where you are as an agency. The problem is our value is being attacked. However, comparing one agency with another is utterly irrelevant because everybody is doing the same thing under the bonnet. Instead, we need to focus on addressing the fact that we are stuck in input time-based remuneration, which is killing us. And that is what we have to change. As independent agencies, you have no reason not to change that, you’re in charge.