Keith Cartwright, who spoke about his new WPP-backed agency
If there was one overarching theme that emerged from the recent AdForum Summit, it was the growing importance of data. The subject emerged during almost every conversation between seven agency holding companies and more than 100 pitch consultants (June 29-July 8).
Normally a face-to-face event, the Summit was this time held online, with the companies using an array of technologies to express their messages. And technology was very much on their minds.
Speakers agreed that the current crisis had accelerated the digital transformation of society and that part of the agencies’ role would be to accompany clients through that shift. “We have gone from the reaction phase to the recovery phase,” noted WPP CEO Mark Read. “Clients understand the need to invest and innovate online.”
Much of that innovation will be in the field of data, it seems. The D-word has been bandied about for some time now, but networks are determined to find smarter ways of marrying it with creativity. “Our data philosophy is ‘data variety is our superpower’,” said Di Mayze, WPP’s global head of data and AI. “It’s not about scooping up data – it’s about acquiring data with purpose and using it with purpose.”
MDC Partners CEO Mark Penn summed up the challenge neatly: "Data is nothing without creativity and creativity is nothing without fata."
At Dentsu Aegis Network, Doug Ray, CEO media America, explained that first party data – data that clients themselves gather through direct interaction with consumers – would prove vital. “Identity is the marketing currency of the 21st century.”
IPG was in agreement, observing that first-party data brought brands closer to audiences. “Everything needs to be audience-led,” said Philippe Krakowsky, EVP chief operating officer.
Omnicom was represented at the Summit by the cultural intelligence tracking agency Sparks & Honey, which uses data to provide its clients with usable information about current and future trends. Crucially, though, said head of business development Kristin Cohen, it “merges big data with human data” in the form of a network of experts, scouts and analysts. “It’s a pattern recognition exercise that enables us to identify changes in culture.”
This is vital because, as everyone knows, the world is changing fast and constantly.
Chris Hirst, global CEO of Havas Creative Network, pointed out that our lives had been impacted in a short timeframe by “four global mega-events”: Extinction Rebellion, #MeToo, COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. These would all have a lasting effect, he said, on the relationships between business and society, employers and employees, and business and suppliers.
He stated that three factors were now paramount: Humanity, Technology and Ecology. Consumers may choose products and services depending on their approach to these three areas, he said. Which is why Havas sets out to “make a meaningful difference to brands, businesses and lives”.
Chief strategy officer Bre Rossetti agreed that brands need a purpose “that goes beyond their products”. The question they need to ask is: “How can we make things better for communities at large?”
At Accenture Interactive – which MD Jon Wilkins amusingly described as “the best-backed start-up in creative history” – the issues of brands’ trustworthiness, authenticity and sense of purpose also arose. “It’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand against,” he said. Front-line staff, he added, were now ambassadors for brands.
Trust was equally on the minds of MDC Partners, where CEO Mark Penn remarked that consumers were showing a high level of trust in the companies and corporations that had stoically continued to serve them throughout the crisis. Trust in government had plummeted, however.
Diversity and inclusion were high on the agenda, with WPP pledging to "change the conversation", for example by reviewing its talent processes, participating only in diverse panels, supporting charities and non-profits and reaching out to communities. All the holdings acknowledged that there was much work to be done. However, an impressive number of the speakers were women in leadership positions, suggesting that the dial is moving in the area of gender diversity.
Not back to the office
One thing all the holding companies seemed to agree on – after asking thousands of employees to work from home during an almost global lockdown – is that nobody will be going back to business as usual.
Laurent Ezekiel, chief marketing & growth officer of WPP, mentioned that “open” is one of the company’s values, and said that the pandemic had underlined the value of a more connected and agile way of working. This would likely lead to an evolution of the concept of “the office”.
Michael Houston, worldwide CEO of Grey, felt that people would no longer feel required to physically show up at an office “five, six or seven days a week”. Office space itself could be reduced, or replaced by “collaborative spaces” rather than conventional badged headquarters.
Flexible creative approaches
Flexibility has become key, especially since many clients appear to be moving to a more project-based model. At different points in the Summit, the networks agreed that it was important to be able to cherry pick teams to address specific projects for clients. Typically, MDC’s Mark Penn spoke of a “collaborative and co-operative environment”.
WPP had fresh news in the form of its investment in the new LA-based agency CARTWRIGHT, created by admired creative Keith Cartwright (formerly of 72andSunny). He was on hand to point out that since the agency had been born during the pandemic, it had been shaped and strengthened by it.
Key to the new agency’s success, he said, would be its ability to “expand and contract” as required. Thanks to its relationship with Grey, CARTWRIGHT can remain compact but add resources when needed. He took the opportunity to showcase “The Choice”, for P&G, as a result of that collaboration.
As a young agency with an instinctive understanding of tech and social, he felt that CARTWRIGHT was well-armed to compete in today’s “attention economy”. “We mould and craft our work to stand out in this age,” he said. He wanted to aim for “creative audacity” – not work that offends, but that “surprises people and wakes them up”.
Vicky McGuire, chief creative officer of Havas London, pithily summed up what makes this moment special from a creative point of view. “Creativity is at its best when there is an energy and we have our backs against the wall.”