The big ad agencies are struggling. WPP’s challenges since Sir Martin Sorrell’s departure are well documented. Last week, it was reported that car rental company Hertz was suing its former marketing partner Accenture over a piece of shoddy web design. More broadly, brands are bringing their marketing in-house, denying revenue to agencies.
For advertising executive Jon Goulding, this isn’t a surprise. Seven years ago, he left his executive position at an agency belonging to the marketing giant Omnicom because he saw fundamental problems with how the big network creative agencies were looking after clients.
“I could see that problem only getting worse,” he explains. “What a lot of network agencies do is give clients very specialist capabilities – whether that be advertising, PR, or digital – and expect the client to try and piece all these elements together.”
After struggling to bring about change as a chief operating officer, instead he and a few other industry veterans decided to set up their own independent company, Atomic London, with the goal of trying to modernise the agency landscape.
Since the company began in 2012, Atomic has worked on campaigns for the likes of Unilever, the Royal Opera House, Madame Tussauds and even the snack food Peperami. Goulding says that his agency takes a different approach from the other big names, focusing on giving clients a joined-up creative solution to their marketing problems. In contrast, other creative agencies may just push the things that they’re good at making, whether that’s TV ads or digital tools, but which might not suit what a particular brand actually needs.
“What clients fundamentally need now is an agency that is as passionate about giving them a brilliant answer to their marketing problem, not a predefined solution,” he adds.
“The heart of our business plan is that you’ve got to have a culture that is as agnostic about what the answer should look like as they are about whatever it happens to be.”
This approach required building the agency “culture first”, which Goulding says is summed up by the philosophy of being “never quiet”.
“It’s our culture and principles. It’s the attitude that we hire people for, and we have behaviours built around that. It’s also reflective of the type of work that our clients demands: it needs to stand out and shout loudly. Our whole agency is built around this.”
One example of the agency’s philosophy in action is its recent “See Every Angle” campaign which it designed for The I newspaper. This is a series of images depicting public figures and the different ways that they’re viewed in the media, such as Theresa May (“pragmatic, robotic, chaotic”) and Donald Trump (“dictator, mediator, detonator”) to highlight the paper’s neutrality.
“The I campaign has been great, because you get a chance to be a bit polarising,” he says. “Although we wanted to give a balanced view, it gave us the chance to be quite controversial. That’s what makes a great work, when some people love it and others don’t. Most creative bosses would say that the quality of work generally over the last couple of decades has become more vanilla, and more like wallpaper.”
Looking more broadly at the marketing industry, Goulding predicts agencies will continue to simplify and consolidate their structures.
“Clients want to receive more balanced marketing advice, rather than just trying to coordinate a whole load of specialists. There’s massive pressure on agencies to be more agile, and do things much much quickly, and to some degree that comes with the expectation that you’ll be able to do more work for less money.”
And while brands are adopting digital tools, such as big data and targeted ads, the importance of creativity mustn’t be forgotten.
“More than ever, clients need creativity,” he says. “Ultimately, that is the only way they can create differentiation between themselves and every other brand.”
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So what’s next for Atomic? As well as landing more high-profile, mainstream clients, Goulding wants to build the agency up by acquiring specialist capabilities in areas like data insight and targeted media.
“What clients want when they come to us is not only how we can create a joined up answer to their problem, but they also want depth of capability in order to run their programmes. We’ll be hoping to use the hard work in building our culture as a glue for these more specialist capabilities in order to avoid culture clash.”
The marketing landscape is going through seismic change at the moment. But when the big agencies like WPP and others face difficulties, that creates an opportunity for smaller, independent firms like Atomic to prove themselves.