Do creative independents have an edge over network agencies?

On the back of the Publicis - Omnicom merger, we explore whether today smaller agencies seem more attractive, given the freedom devoid of network pressure

Do creative independents have an edge over network agencies?

The Publicis – Omnicom merger, the sheer scale and size of the joint entity, has brought to the fore various challenges such as distinctly different cultures, salary harmonisation, and stated saving coming on the back of job cuts.

The entire scenario makes smaller independent agencies look all the more attractive, giving them freedom devoid of network pressure and the baggage that comes with it. 

“Being a smaller agency, you decide the pace and the accounts you want to work on, what kind of division to have, to include digital or become solely digital or not, you can take a call. There is no network pressure to work in a particular city or country. No pressure to meet targets year-on-year, and no projections or targets 12 months in advance. No top management exerting pressure on the creative team because their bonus is linked to pre-set targets,” said Santosh Padhi, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Taproot India. 

The pressure to take on more work and more pitches than a creative person can do justice to is often multiplied, leading to a vicious cycle, added Padhi.

Padhi’s sentiments are echoed by Prathap Suthan, Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer, Bang in the Middle. He said, “The only reason why Bang in the Middle came about was the over arching want and desire to have freedom. So that’s something very precious for us and extremely liberating as well. We do have the freedom to pick and choose whom we want to work with, and whom we don't want to work with. More than that, sometimes we would want to work for someone because we like the promise of his or her brand. Work doesn’t have to be always about the money. Earlier, we’d have never looked at a top line called happiness. Being independent also gives us the flexibility to consider different streams of businesses and revenue. More importantly, it gives us the latitude to take decisions on the spot. We don’t have to take permission from anyone.”

Do smaller agencies miss out on prestigious brands?
While independent agencies do have the advantage of freedom, agencies within holding companies hold the advantage of the wide portfolio of the biggest brands any creative person would take pride in working on.

Brands such as Coke, Pepsi, and Apple add value to every portfolio, giving a sense of achievement to those who worked on them. Being part of a team that has worked on these brands automatically holds an advantage, while owners of smaller agencies may have to struggle for years to add a big brand to their agency credentials – a fact that may now be changing with agencies such as Taproot making inroads into bigger brands and working on clients such as Airtel and Pepsi.

Bring in the metals
The other aspect that comes with being part of a network company is the pressure to win awards.

“Network agencies maybe affected because of the pressure to win awards and it becomes a numbers game; so being part of a network turns into a disadvantage. This trend can be observed more in the recent years,” said Manish Bhatt, Founder-Director, Scarecrow Communications.

Bhatt also added that being a part of a network agency can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the philosophy of that network. It remains more of a corporate affair unless the group has certain rules on the kind of work it needs to take up; for example, some networks say no to political advertising, so it affects the agencies within as well.
Coming to the aspect of client conflict, network agencies have the advantage of taking on clients from the same category as they leverage the advantage of numerous divisions that can work on the accounts and retain otherwise conflicting accounts under the umbrella of the same group.

Protecting client interests
Network agencies attempt to optimise to their own advantage investments and relationships of their parent companies. But are those relationships always in the best interest of clients. In this scenario are independent agencies better able to protect clients’ interest?

“Independent agencies have more to lose, and therefore client relationships are far more emotional and consequently stronger. But of course, these relationships are fragile and the moment money comes under duress, these relationships strain. This is a truth independent agencies would echo across the world,” said Suthan.

When it comes to client interest within network agencies, Suthan added, “As long as individual agencies within holding companies compete as different entities, and continue to hold their turf against each other, clients can only gain. Being part of a holding company doesn't mean that individual agencies have lost their freedom and isolation. I would ideally think that the holding companies would and could offer an invisible layer of insulation and protection in case of crisis and emergencies. But then, I could be a romantic fool.” 

While independent agencies certainly revel in their freedom to walk down the untrodden path, free from network pressure, network agencies enjoy the scale and a wider portfolio of bigger clients. More and more brands are now open to working with smaller agencies unfettered by network pressures and baggage; maybe only a project basis in the beginning but it is a start for sure.

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