Co-founder of Brown & co., Dave Brown, explores how a platform agency might work, through the lens of his own experience.

As a child, and as an adult for that matter, I have always enjoyed a good fireworks display. The disintegration of a perfectly aerodynamic structure into light, colour, and free form is both captivating to the audience, and also showcases the true potential of the firework. In our world of budget cuts, timeline cuts and an increasing demand for breakthrough work, we have realised that the current agency model is not sustainable. However, instead of shutting our doors and admitting defeat, we have lit the metaphorical fuse and allowed our office space to be blown up into light, colour, and free form. In short, we went virtual. And the best part? It’s working.

Lighting the fuse
Our industry has been suffering for the past number of years. Agencies are trying to balance shrinking client budgets, and increased client demands for flexibility and responsiveness, all while trying not to compromise on the quality of work delivered. Simultaneously, employees are wanting more flexibility, variety, and a sense of purpose beyond their working lives. This combination of dissatisfaction from both ends provided us the perfect environment and opportunity to blow up the current agency model and create something more sustainable. In fact, I’d argue that without a drastic change, your agency probably won’t be around for the next two years, let alone the next five.

Those agencies that will survive (and thrive) are those that can meet the demands of both clients and staff simultaneously, for the benefit of both, and do more than just talk a good game. We saw this with “innovation labs” (yawn). The next generation of agencies will need to be built on one simple interactive principle: use human nature to better humankind. Sounds like a lovely ideology doesn’t it? Well, it’s our reality.

It has always seemed counter-intuitive to me that agencies continually operate with a dark age mentality of appeasing the shareholders first, and employees last. Blowing up the agency model meant getting rid of archaic ways of working, and this principle was the second thing to go (the first being the redundant and expensive swanky office space). Our principle is a ‘no-brainer’: the collaborator comes first. By looking after the collaborator, they will in turn deliver a great experience to your client which tends to deliver a positive return on investment for your partnership. 

While high quality work is integral to success, a solution delivered a month too late is just that… too late. With competition growing at a rapid pace, client timelines are shrinking, as they work tirelessly to keep their brands relevant. It is therefore all about flexibility and agility.

As any first year economics student will tell you, these are not core attributes of a large company. The larger the company, the more bureaucratic and cumbersome they become – more management layers, more procedures, more people required for signoff, the dreaded committee… the list and the timelines go on longer than the lifespan of a viral video.

The result is a rigid agency, unable to strike while the iron is hot, and limited by the available skillset in the office at any one time. In order to remain successful, agencies need to be able to mobilise a bespoke and experienced team quickly, while adjusting their offer to suit the constantly changing needs of the market.

Today’s agencies should learn to step out of their creatively stifling comfort zones. No more grey walls every day (the same grey walls every day). No more paying for people to keep a desk warm. No more timesheets. And, no more handing work over to the resource that happens to be available in the studio at the time. The brilliance in a virtual model is that with a whiff of organisation, you are able to hand work over to a resource who is not only better equipped, but who has more passion for that specific job.

Taking it a step further, a remote working means you are no longer limited to the (very) finite talent pool in your office, but can select from the finest talent worldwide. While this does mean that longer kickoff times need to be factored into all proposals, the result for us has been faster overall turn-around and a much higher quality of finish.

These are all very obvious wins for the shareholders and clients, but what does this mean for those doing the actual work? Well, by using our philosophy of “using human nature to better humankind”, we encourage our collaborators to work when they want to work, how they want to work, flexibly and without the feeling of being ‘clocked in’ at an office (say goodbye to the dreaded timesheets).

While utilising ‘freelance resource’ to handle flex in workloads is nothing new in agency planning, the difference with pioneers out there is that they don’t refer to them as ‘freelancers’, nor treat them as such. Your collaborators are your creative and strategic partners and should form an integral part of your core teams. As such, you should be incentivising them on many levels – from job satisfaction and holiday in lieu, through to STIP reward.

Reality check
I’m not naive enough to think you can wave a magic wand and that nurturing young talent in a virtual collective will become a breeze. It can pose a challenge, especially in the early days of development. Some may feel that this is not an ideal way of working as it will become a sterile and cultureless working environment. And, for the unimaginative, this may be true.

However, stepping away from the swanky office space does not need to mean less face-to-face interaction. With technological advancements, such as the cloud based video conferencing system ZOOM, we manage to see each other (well, the top half of each other) almost daily. We have stretched this as far as having end-of-week drinks together with ten of our collaborators in five different countries! Cheers to that!

With clients and colleagues demanding change, we say lean in! Embrace the change, celebrate technology, and allow your agency explode into the 21st century way of working.