Building a purpose-driven creative agency

The local creative and communication industry certainly doesn’t lack talent and South African agencies have, over the years, held high acclaim in many parts of the world. In comparing ourselves globally, however, across industries, it is hard to establish whether we have done this through unique agency cultures or whether it is simply our talent pool, hard work and can-do attitude that have prevailed.

Special culture

South Africans are generally highly regarded for their work ethic and tenacity, and many agencies over time have stood out boldly in the territory of creative accolades, but how many are remembered for a special culture that has stood the test of time and weathered the various marketing and economic storms that prevail?

In an industry that is currently suffering a degree of fatigue and fragmentation, in line with the rest of the economy, a purpose-led agency is becoming more paramount. In an environment where clients are demanding more for less and the emphasis is upon efficiency and ROI, the agency environment is hard-pressed to make a difference and culture is a casualty. In a recent client survey, some evidence suggests that that they don’t give a damn and only agencies are preoccupied with their culture, whereas clients are concerned with their output and delivery.

This is further propagated by the plethora of freelancing and outsourcing, which is a necessary structural issue for the industry at present yet one which doesn’t necessarily promote strong agency cultures but rather a highly individualistic and fragmented one.

Who is getting it right?

If we were to ask who is the Google or Netflix of the SA communications industry, I’m not certain we would have a clear answer or benchmark. Agency profiles have had an ebb and flow, and it is difficult to assess which agencies have uniquely special and successful cultures of a sustainable nature.

Anecdotally and through a consistent track record, King James comes to mind as one which has done something right on a regular basis. Joe Public is another which appears to have a deeper purpose at the heart of the agency — yes, client centricity and great work feature, but it has placed growth at the epicentre of its business — client growth, agency growth and its own people growth resonate strongly in its DNA and in any discussion with either Gareth Leck or Pepe Marais.

My understanding of their business is superficial at best but they have had multiple successes of a regular kind in recent years and they, too, appear to be doing something right — while remaining humble and grounded, rather than developing the rock star mentality that key figures in our industry sometimes become preoccupied with.

Calling all agency staff and leaders

I would love to hear from agency staff and leaders to understand more about how they view their agency cultures and how this translates into inspiring work, delighted clients and great results. It will be useful to reflect upon some best practice in the SA communications industry and hear from those who believe they have it right. Certainly, in many instances, creativity is the emphasis, but is there more than that and how is it sustained?

St Luke’s, a 20-year old independent agency in the UK, featured prominently as a case study in The Marketing Manifesto as an agency that set out differently and played by a unique culture and set of rules. Is this the domain of only independent agencies which are not reporting to death by spreadsheet to multinational head offices or is there a case of multinationals with greater capability and a stronger performance orientation which are leading the way? I vividly recall an extract from The Marketing Manifesto that suggested that “all agencies start out differently and end up the same!”

Are we guilty of sameness in SA or are we set to stand apart with strong internal brands and definitive agency cultures that drive our industry and set us apart? I look forward to hearing from you.

  • Often i sit and wonder about internal brand culture and which is the most effective way for an organisation (agency or otherwise) to establish a culture for themselves which is unique and progressive.

    However, i always struggle when it comes to deciding whether it would be best to implement such a culture incrementally over an extended length of time, or is it best to create a shift towards establishing a new culture radically by taking apart the structure thats in place,in order to rebuild and forge a new path in the brands journey towards realising its vision.

    In your opinion Doctor, what do you think would be the most efficient way to execute such a cause?

    • I don’t think there is a magical one-size-fits-all answer Aedon – culture shifts mean change and this is seldom easy, therefore making it very difficult to instantaneously break down and rebuild. Start up companies have the ‘luxury’ of a blank canvass so if the basics are established correctly from the get-go the chances of building this from the beginning are good. Larger, established organisations have entrenched culture which can be good or bad – in this instance appropriate change to address the situation is always better – evolving visions, big strategic shifts, possible mergers or acquisitions are all catalysts for such change and will often serve as the basis for a new approach, probably leaning toward incremental change, but the degree of it may differ depending on the extent of the situation.