Opinion

25 September 2019

Why Big Agency thought leaders don’t speak for an entire industry 

Nick Ellis, creative partner and co-founder of Halo, on why advertising thought leaders don't speak for the small and mid-sized agencies that make 95% of the industry.

Adland is weird. And I say this with affection.

I’ve always been an outsider at the party looking in, wondering when the host will notice me with my ill-fitting jacket and awkward social skills. A naturally shy individual in an industry where confidence is everything, where performers shine. 

Adland wasn’t made for people like me. Shit at networking, relatively poor at self-promotion, shapers of brands with no idea how to write their own legend. But I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, I know I’m not. The industry I recognise is full of independent shops; fiercely creative folk striving to carve out a living doing the work they love, making a difference for their clients, building a business and a name. 

According to the Creative Industries Federation almost 95% (94.8%) of creative industries businesses are micro businesses (less than 10 employees). The micro businesses and mid-sized agencies, such as ourselves, are the boutiques who don’t answer to share-holders, whose culture is simply an extension of - at times, a charmingly dysfunctional - family. So why, in a time when we’ve never been more connected do I feel increasingly more alone, increasingly more adrift from a world I’ve spent the best part of 20 years living in?

Get better at knowing people and how to matter to them. That is what we’re paid to do.

Nick Ellis, Halo

Seeking relevance 

When did we get so out of touch with our own reality? At what point did we decide that a handful of Promethean-style gods should be the voice of our industry? Is it not enough to be expected to grow pale in the shadow of the networks, that we kneel at the altar of big agency, eating crumbs of wisdom casually tossed into our outstretched hands; to sustain us as we navigate an ever-shifting market place and a fiercer, more competitive trading environment?

I read Nick Law’s interview in Contagious where he opines the need for agencies to invest in tech, to build new capabilities in voice and augmented reality and I thought, ‘who can afford to do that?’ But more importantly, ‘why would you?’ Why would you bet the farm on developing a tech product offering when there are bigger issues at stake. Like stability for staff, like rent and roofs and taxes. It’s a good story for an investor deck but makes no sense to me. The big agency view foresees a digital nirvana, where agencies create the platform and engineer the product, but in my world clients don’t have the spend or the appetite, the opportunity or the head space. And frankly, that’s not what I think we’re here for, at least, that’s not why I got into this.

We exist to solve problems. Answering strategic and commercial questions with insight and creativity and, most importantly, with a brand-first approach. Put the audience needs at the centre and find ways to best respond to them. Don’t build product offerings and look for ways you can apply them. This isn’t about relying on one ‘Big Idea’, but it is about having one, or rather, a number of ideas that respond to human behaviour - the basics of wants, needs and fears. It’s not new and it’s not shiny, but it is something really worth investing in. Because tech will come and go, the landscape will shift and the game will keep changing, but the fundamentals always apply. Get better at knowing people and how to matter to them. That is what we’re paid to do.

Voices of reason 

I’m not saying don’t read op-eds from the industry titans. They have earnt their status. They deserve our admiration. But they are often out of touch with the wider world they ascended from. So seek out other voices too. And if you’re an independent shop, if you’re an upstart start-up, if you’re betting on this game with your own money there’s inspiration out there that goes beyond network tech-philosophy and can inspire you to develop ideas that will help you succeed. Some are in the big leagues, some are shining satellites in the Adland universe. All are on Twitter. Let’s end with a list:

Samuel Brealey @SamuelBrealey

One of the smartest marketeers and best writers around. If you’ve not read his work, lucky you. It’s a joy to discover.

Faris Yakob @faris

Wrote Paid Attention, a philosophy book framed through a business lens (my opinion). Shares ideas, asks for nothing in return. Possible shaman.

Robyn Frost @robynhfrost

A brilliant creative voice, changing the industry for the better. Check out Untold Stories: A space for taboo subjects on Campaign now.

JP Hanson @RouserJP

Writes brilliantly for Marketing Week but more importantly is living it – also, just generous and thoughtful.

Katy Cowan @katylcowan

Founder of @creativeboommag. Thank fuck for Creative Boom.

Paul Bailey @paulmarkbailey

I finally convinced him to become Strategy Director at Halo. He makes brands and our agency better.

Ryan Wallman @Dr_Draper

Makes sense of the industry. Makes words meaningful. Makes Twitter worthwhile.


Nick Ellis is the Creative Partner and co-founder of Halo.


Contagious is a resource that helps brands and agencies achieve the best in commercial creativity. Find out more about Contagious membership here.