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The agency online: What’s next?

The agency online: What’s next?

2020 has flipped the world on its head and delivered the unexpected. With companies like That Ad Store, a boutique digital e-commerce agency, pioneering services online, the questions need to be asked of the agency life – what’s next?

How has the industry changed?

“In terms of the way in which agencies work, nothing has changed, really,” says Hayley Doron-Weil, the founder of Thatadstore.com. “Things seem to remain very much the same, even though everyone is working from home. Covid-19 has forced a lot of the industry to Facetime instead of face-to-face, but the working model remains the same.”

But, “COVID-19 has taught us that we can do business beyond what we ever imagined,” says Pepe Marais, Group Chief Creative Officer at Joe Public United. “We can efficiently and effectively work remotely without compromising our output.”

According to Pierre du Plessis, Associate Creative Director, Ogilvy Johannesburg, however: “The most marked change, is a vastly increased level of empathy. Before the lockdown, there was a strong ‘bums-in-seats’ mentality and very little sincere concern for the physical and mental health of employees. It’s as if the crisis has forced agencies to completely rethink the way they treat their most valuable assets.

“Across the board, agencies have been incredibly accommodating to employees’ needs in the face of Covid-19,” says du Plessis. “Whether by stepping up the quality and frequency of internal communication, ensuring that all employees have the tools they need to work online, minimising overtime, providing counsellors and tools for stress management and learning, actively assisting employees who contract Covid-19, and ensuring that employees can continue to work from home for as long as they want to, while creating a safe space for those who need to be in the office.”

Do you think there’s scope to be online as an agency?

“Are you a Tata or a Porsche?” asks Marais. “Both gets you from A to B, but in very different ways.”

“We already shop online for almost anything,” responds Doron-Weil. “Why not shop for creative too? An e-commerce store for digital advertising may just be what’s needed. Thatadstore.com makes it easy, efficient and instant. It’s a mobile-first way of creating digital ads that live perfectly on the internet, delivered at the speed they’re required.

“I also don’t see Thatadstore.com as being an ‘agency’,” adds Doron-Weil. “We’re more of an agile, digital creative studio. And because we’re online, we have far fewer overheads than a traditional agency which enables us to offer more cost effective pricing on our products. It’s win-win.”

“For the most part, it’s been business-as-usual, even though our one office was forced to scatter into 400 home-offices,” explains du Plessis. “Disruptors like Netflix, Amazon and Google have been working this way for many years now, so there’s more than enough proof of concept that this is a viable way of working.

“That said,” continues du Plessis. “I think there’s a need to be inclusive and accommodate the needs of all employees. Some people thrive in this situation, while others find it alienating and stressful. Not everyone has a suitable space to work from home, and collaboration and coordination can be much more challenging when we’re not in the same room.”

“In the end,” explains Marais, “I allow the purpose of our business to drive my preferences and I think key to nurturing and growing people towards the highest level of creative excellence, is sharing space and interacting. Whether this needs to be 24/7 is the big debate. I believe we will take the flexibility of this period into our future, but I don’t believe that we can digitise our total offering.”

“The industry has improved by implementing digital transformation into every facet of the business,” agrees Doron-Weil. “Agencies are implementing some form of an online presence. However, I don’t believe that all agencies now need to only exist online or to have an online store at all. People still like shopping in person at malls and in shops and this is also true for people and brands who like to work at and within agencies. It’s more of a culture. There should always be something for everyone.”

“Maybe it is time to start thinking more about sustainability,” adds Marais. “My first reason for why we need online agencies would be reduction of the carbon footprint of buildings. Secondly, the lack of balance in our creative society. Imagine the time we would save by permanently working from home, in terms of travel and attending meetings.”

“Yes, in addition to the increase in empathy, the move online has made us much more agile,” says du Plessis. “Where before, an offsite meeting would require up to two hours of travel time, we can now meet with clients and suppliers on a whim.

“We’re collaborating in brand new ways, trying out new tools and generally working much more closely together with our clients and suppliers, which can only improve the final product.

“Moving online is a novel development in our industry, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how agencies utilise a combination of online and office-based working as a competitive advantage,” continues du Plessis. “I can imagine that there’s incredible potential for collaboration across global agency networks, where experts from anywhere in the world can seamlessly be pulled into a team working on a brief or pitch. The cost savings from needing less physical floorspace, and all the expenses that go with it, could in itself be a major competitive advantage.”

“I don’t think anyone expected an e-commerce store for digital advertising,” admits Doron-Weil. “But, I think it’s a welcomed surprise for those who need Thatadstore.com the most.”

Start-ups, a growing business, a big business or even an ad agency can all benefit from going online. “Their social, digital advertising and mobile branding can now be delivered with more agility and price sensitivity,” explains Doron-Weil. “Thatadstore.com aims to democratise pricing to make quality digital advertising affordable and accessible to everyone who needs it.”

How has the industry suffered?

“It’s been clear that this way of working is not for everyone,” adds du Plessis. “Some people are distracted by all the things going on in their home, others are having a hard time adapting to the new tools we have to use now. And while there has been an incredible level of trust and empowerment from our leadership, there’s often a sense of distrust and disconnect between employees when they can’t see each other actively working. As a natural result of the economic downturn caused by the lockdown, there is also more pressure than ever on lean budgets and consistently producing results.

“While good work can reliably hit the targets, great work is always a gamble and right now clients are playing things very safe. It’s been challenging to convince clients to be bold and brave.”

According to Marais, “One of the biggest challenges that faces our industry today is that process has taken over creativity, hence there’s hardly any ground-breaking campaigns in the market. Which is why I believe you need to first decide what you stand for. What is your purpose? What is your greater value? What are your daily operating values? Decide on how significant you want to be, then design your model around that.

So, what’s in the stars for agency life? Is online the future?

“Agencies are disruptors at heart and have always been resilient despite being in a constant state of flux,” says du Plessis. “Every major shift in media and technology in the past gave rise to a revolution in creativity and I believe that this shift will be no different. There’s already some very exciting work coming out of the agencies who are embracing this brave new world and the best is yet to come.”

“It’s definitely one way forward,” says Doron-Weil. “One that I hope agencies will partner with Thatadstore.com on.”

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Clare Matthes

Clare is Gadget-Gal – and she’s technically amazing.

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