Tom Roach is the new VP Brand Planning at Jellyfish, a new breed of digital-first marketing company. Ahead of the launch of WARC’s 2021 Future of Strategy research project, Roach – who has worked at top 10 advertising agencies in London for over 20 years – shares his thoughts on Jellyfish, and what it may mean about the agencies of the future.
Like many in the agency world, I hadn’t heard of Jellyfish until quite recently, its brand awareness undeniably lagging its remarkable business performance of +45% growth on average every year for the last 8 years. It’s grown via word of mouth, more through referrals from clients and the tech platforms than through high profile pitches.
Appropriately for a company that’s in the business of digital marketing transformation, Jellyfish’s own origin story is itself one of transformation – from its roots as an IT consultancy in Reigate, UK, via its evolution into a performance marketing company, to its current incarnation, a new breed of global marketing services company with over 2000 people and 40 offices globally.
Jellyfish feels like it’s injecting new DNA into the marketing services industry. The original London agencies from the mid 19th century to the 1920s grew up around Fleet Street and the newspaper industry. The next wave moved to 1960s Soho with its connection to the film and TV worlds following the advent of commercial TV. The latest wave of agencies is following the rise of ‘digital’ as the dominant media of the age.
What is Jellyfish?
Because it’s part of a new category of company for which the industry hasn’t yet settled on a common descriptor, and because it’s evolving and transforming all the time, it can be hard to categorise. Jellyfish doesn’t call itself an agency or consultancy, instead describing itself as a ‘digital partner’.
Martin Sorrell’s definition of S4 Capital as “a communications business for the new marketing age” is also true of Jellyfish, and that’s helpful language as it points to a new category of company, of which S4 Capital and Jellyfish are two global front-runners.
Jellyfish plans and buys media, but it’s not a media agency. It does digital transformation consultancy, but it’s not a consultancy. It has serious expertise in the adtech platforms, but it’s not an adtech company. It makes creative content and advertising, but it’s not an ad agency. It does performance marketing but it’s not a performance marketing agency.
Importantly Jellyfish isn’t a holding company. It has a unified organisational structure with a single global P&L, and every effort is made to make each acquisition or new hire feel like part of one global company. Jellyfish only does things if they’re scalable – if it can’t productise a service and scale it globally then it won’t offer it. CEO Rob Pierre describes his vision for the growth of Jellyfish’s organisational structure and culture being ‘a vector image not a jpeg’ – so that regardless of how big it grows and no matter what your vantage point, every part looks and feels like Jellyfish, meaning no new component will add complexity, weaken its structural integrity or water down its cultural unity.
What does its emergence and growth say about the future of agencies?
In 2000 when I started at AMV BBDO there were still Aston Martin’s and Ferrari’s parked in the basement car park, the last visible trace of adland’s glory days. But since then the large network creative agencies have struggled to adapt to the arrival of the adtech platforms.
The big agencies of the 20th century got big by being the best at partnering with the big marketers of that era – P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Ford etc. The big names of the 21st century will get big by being the best at partnering with the big platforms and brands of this one.
Jellyfish’s proximity to the platforms has been an important factor in its rise. We know our clients’ brands; we know the platforms and their algorithms; we know the audience’s behaviour on the platforms; we just want our clients’ brands to perform on them to their fullest potential.
The arrival of agencies like Jellyfish looks like it could fix one of the most persistent divides in marketing – the unbundling of media and creative that started around thirty years ago. And whilst Jellyfish began life closer to the media side of the divide, it’s developing its creative offering, a natural move given its physical proximity to the deployment of creative assets on the platforms. And having started more in the ‘performance’ space but recognising the as yet largely untapped power of brand-building creativity in digital, it can also help fix a related divide, the one between brand and performance.
In fact Jellyfish bridges all of marketing’s big divides and has all the components of the modern marketing machine sitting happily together under one roof: media & content, technology & creativity, brand & performance, data & ideas, agency & consultancy. And with strong technology and training businesses, Jellyfish is also capable of servicing clients regardless of their stance on in-housing or outsourcing.
And whilst the holding companies may be finding it tough right now, small, independent creative agencies do seem to be doing well too. They’re getting on ever larger pitch lists and some are winning very large global creative origination briefs, for which they may not have the scale, technology or even inclination, to handle the creative asset adaptation, deployment and optimisation required.
So perhaps in the future the marketing communications landscape could comprise two types of company: 1) Lead strategic partners who manage the on-going business of media planning, deployment and creative optimisation across the platforms; 2) Specialist creative agencies and studios whose role is to create new assets to challenge those currently being deployed. A ‘Champion vs `Challenger’ model rather than ‘Media vs Creative’ model. A future where smaller pure-play creative agencies and larger companies like Jellyfish happily coexist in symbiosis.
I’m genuinely excited about the future – the future of marketing and the part Jellyfish can play in shaping it.
The Future of Strategy 2021 will focus on the next generation of strategists. To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org