Interact 2018: Futurologist Amelia Torode tells IAB Europe what the future of agencies might look like

Held in Milan on 23-24 May, IAB Europe’s Annual 2-day conference Interact 2018 will feature contributions from all stakeholders with a say in the future of the digital ecosystem, from advertisers to publishers, to ad tech businesses, politicians and regulators. Together they’ll examine the forces disrupting digital, how businesses can adapt to thrive, and how we can reinvent the digital ecosystem to provide a firm foundation for business growth in the future.

Ahead of her keynote speech at Interact 2018, we had a nice chat with Amelia Torode, Futurologist & Founder of The Fawnbrake Collective. Read more:

Amelia Torode is one of the UK’s best known strategic planners. Campaign magazine describe her as a “trailblazer in the advertising industry, a brilliant strategic thinker and leader.” She was one of the first WPP Marketing Fellows in 1997 and subsequently worked at agencies such as Naked Communications, OgilvyInteractive New York, VCCP and at TBWA\London as their Chief Strategy Officer. Amelia recently launched The Fawnbrake Collective, designed to be a new operating system for Brand Strategy & Experience Design using independent and freelance talent who have chosen to opt out of large agency structures.  Amelia is a TEDx Talk-er on Brands On The Brain, a Part Time Power List winner, “Planner of The Year”.

IAB Europe: You talk about optimising talent and creativity – how does The Fawnbrake Collective achieve this?

Amelia Torode: The Fawnbrake Collective is our attempt to redesign the agency model to become faster, flatter, more flexible and better suited to the needs of 21st century brands and clients. Our industry is at a pivotal moment. We’ve been battered by waves of technological and cultural change and quite frankly the big old agencies just aren’t fit for purpose, they’re slow 20th century oil tankers when the world needs collectives of agile flotillas.

Last year Sera and I met at an IPA Excellence Diploma judging day. My mother had just passed away from cancer, Sera was on the point of relocating her family down from Scotland and exiting Material, the agency that she founded. We had both reached the point where we wanted something different. We had both looked at the agency landscape and both realised that nothing set our pulses racing with excitement. We’d have these conversations which went along the lines of – if you were going to start something today that delivered true strategic counsel and creative solutions to clients, what would it look like? It was so obvious that the one thing that it would not look like would be a traditional advertising or media agency.

We started off thinking hard about talent. We firmly believe that the best talent today want to work with others, not for others. We see smart talent leaving agencies to try and find a different way. We saw smart people leaving London because the costs of living couldn’t be met by the entry-level wages of agencies.  These were great people who wanted out of the industry but wanted to stay in the game and the current shape of agencies couldn’t accommodate them.

So if the starting point is that it’s all about talent, how can you create a flexible structure that allows for clients to get best in class thinking and ideas, with project and value based pricing free from traditional overheads or time based deliverables and create a community of independent and freelance talent.

This is how we describe ourselves: “Fawnbrake is a loose, horizontal Collective of like-minded people who have chosen to opt out of large corporate structures but who still want to feel like part of a crew, part of something. Fawnbrake is populated by grown-ups (regardless of age) in so much as we are all self-sufficient. We are not children, we’re not waiting for leads. We’re happy hunting alone (and good at it) but know that often it’s more enjoyable in a pack. Fawnbrake is a virtual and physical group where we can help each other, learn from each other, engage with each other and become smarter in the process ourselves. We operate on a principle of Karma Not Kickbacks.”

IAB Europe: How have brands/advertisers reacted to the operating model of The Fawnbrake Collective?

Amelia Torode: The reaction has been hugely positive. The new landscape is going to be populated by new organisations of all shapes and sizes and operating models, everybody knows that. Fawnbrake isn’t anti-agency, in fact one of our projects was helping a client find a global advertising network to work with to deliver their first global advertising campaign in 20 markets. We are however anti-bad agencies, anti-lazy agencies and anti-bloated agencies. We think that in 3 years’ time, half the traditional media and creative agencies in London will have had to close. Supply and demand are out of sync.

No client has ever asked to see our HQ, or an org chart of layers of personnel. As Marc Pritchard put it: “It’s time to disrupt archaic ‘Mad Men’ model, eliminating silos between creatives, clients & consumers, and stripping away anything that doesn’t add to creative output – excess management, buildings & overhead”.

Even Sir Martin at AdWeek 2018 called for new companies that are “more responsive, less bureaucratic… more agile, less layered… more principled.” That’s Fawnbrake in a nutshell.

IAB Europe: Part of your new way of working includes no internal email – what is your preferred replacement internal comms channel?

Amelia Torode: Email works just fine for one way communications – like a newsletter, an announcement or for an initial contact like an inbound approach or an outbound proposal. Where is doesn’t work well is for internal communications or project-based work. We were finding that in our old jobs we were constantly firefighting emails, jumping up and responding to emails and that got in the way of actually doing the work.

For all internal communications we use the messaging app, Slack – it helps us to it helps us mobilize communication, fuel discussion and bring in 20 or 30 voices at a time on a project in a structured, productive way –  in a way that email never could, it also works for small project groups. With clients we often find that customised WhatsApp groups actually work better than email.

IAB Europe: Last year you wrote that you “shouldn’t need to bleed to succeed”. Do you think – with the revelations, movements and call to action to change the industry over the past year – that the impetus towards (or actual) work/life balance of traditional agency/networks, has in fact changed?

Amelia Torode: The issues are that the traditional agencies are just 20th-century structures that are failing to adapt fast enough. That structural deficiency means that profits are down, margins are lower and there’s a frenzied need for continual pitching and new business. That makes for a working environment that we don’t think works for anyone.

We need to redesign this industry’s work structures and organisations to better suit the needs of creative workers or we will find that they will simply vote with their feet and walk away.

Our assets are our people, we all know that, but too often our industry uses people like cannon fodder and burns out those with families or who have commitments outside the office. We’re facing a talent dearth of our own making. All too often, it seems that to succeed in our industry you still have to bleed for your agency. If you’re not prepared to do that, then someone else coming up the ranks will. Goldman Sachs-style hours become an (unpaid) expectation rather than a personal choice. Bedtimes (ours or those of our children) are missed, gym sessions are skipped and dinner dates canceled. So we comfort ourselves in the belief that our ideas are making “dents in the universe” and that they are well worth the sacrifice, there has to be another way.

IAB Europe: What keeps you awake at night?

Amelia Torode: Making sure that the commercial, and the “social” elements, of our business work together in a way that works best for all Fawnbrakers.

IAB Europe: What should businesses leaders in the global digital advertising industry be addressing, for people, working in their companies?

Amelia Torode: People often say in our industry that it’s all about “the work, the work, the work” which is right but never forget that it’s people who do the work. How do you think your people work best? How can you ensure that young people don’t leave disillusioned, and older people leave burnt out? It should be about “people, people, people”. Happy people are fulfilled people and more productive people. Business leaders have a moral duty of care for the people who work for them, we have to get rid of short-term thinking.

Join us at INTERACT 2018 in Milan on 23-24 May 2018! 


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