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“Now Is the Time for Independents”



As MAAG relaunches as the Alliance of Independent Agencies, new managing director Matt Sullivan and co-chair Ruth Kieran tell LBB’s Alex Reeves why indies’ flexibility and collaborative nature is coming into its own

“Now Is the Time for Independents”
Today, the Marketing Agencies Action Group (MAAG) announced its evolution into the Alliance of Independent Agencies, as part of an extensive restructure.

With its purpose re-focused, the Alliance pledges to lead the agenda for independent agencies and promote the UK sector’s interests as it faces the negative impact of Covid-19; helping independent agencies to safeguard jobs and boost agency growth. 
2020 has hit the creative agency sector hard, with as much as a 70% reduction in individual agency income (April-June). Independents make up as much as 90% of the 16,500 agencies in the creative sector which contributes £25billion to the UK economy and employed over 109,000 people before the pandemic. 

As income, jobs, ways of working, and client-agency relationships are reimagined as a result of Covid-19’s impact, the Alliance argues that the independent agency sector needs a clear and action-focused voice that it claims it has not had until now.
That voice will come with new leadership. To coincide with the rebrand, the Alliance of Independent Agencies has appointed Matt Sullivan as managing director, formerly US vice president at The Drum and head of the Drum Network, and prior to that, managing director of the DMA’s International ECHO Awards.

The Alliance has also brought in a members board and introduced a triumvirate of co-chairs: Ruth Kieran (CEO, Cirkle), Dino Myers-Lamptey (founder, The Barber Shop), and Laurence Parkes (CEO, Rufus Leonard). The co-chairs, the association says, are primarily responsible for distilling the input of the Alliance’s eight action groups (in the arenas of Purpose, People, and Performance) into one united voice.

As soon as director Clive Mishon told Matt about the rebrand, he was on board. Re-badging MAAG clearly as something for independent agencies is the clarity of purpose that convinced him. “For a while now, I think there's been this need to clear the water, clearly badge it for who it's for, what it does, and then collaborate with all the other membership options that are out there,” he says. “I think it's really key, that word ‘independent’. We're not going to hide from that. That’s who it’s for. It’s got to be crystal clear. 

“There's a sense of pride behind it as well. We're not the poor cousins to the big networks. I actually believe now is the time for independents. The last few years there has been real momentum around the work, the talent they're attracting. I think we've seen a massive shift.”

The networks are no longer the destination they once were, he suggests. “A lot of the talent is deciding that in order to carve out a career, you don't just have to be in a network agency in London. Now you can get really good experience elsewhere.”

This is being driven by strong work coming from independents, he says, which is becoming internationally recognised with awards. “About two or three years ago, being a specialist shop or boutique agency became cool again,” he says. “Clients were going back to having a roster rather than just one big shop that integrated everything. The land grabbing stopped for independents. They tightened up their positioning and they started to collaborate with each other more. And that just started to build a load of momentum. The fact that clients can use different specialist agencies now and they collaborate, they’re friends. It means the bigger budgets came their way as well.” 

That opportunity for collaboration between an eclectic mix of specialisms, different types and sizes of independent agencies forming a marketing Voltron for their brand clients, is only strengthened by greater collaboration, says Matt, something that he sees the Alliance as facilitating as the association moves forward.

One of the co-chairs, Cirkle’s Ruth Kieran, agrees. In fact, she thinks the adversity of Covid has fostered a camaraderie among the Alliance’s members. “We've had some brilliant collaboration over the last few months as a network - a group of really amazing agencies,” she says. “I've certainly benefited from being part of that. A lot of the challenges we've had over property and leasing - all the challenges from an operational point of view - it’s been brilliant to work with other agencies that are also going through that. I don't think there's any other organisation that can offer agencies that kind of level of support in a really collaborative, supportive way. It's been brilliant for us.”  

As a business leader herself, she’s found immense value in this community. “When you talk to another chief exec of another agency having the same challenges, that is absolute gold dust. I've really valued that through this period.”

Matt attributes this to the ethos of the organisation which puts people at the centre, whereas other membership groups might “focus on new business as the holy grail”. He notes that while agencies networks have training budgets, resources for support and the ability to move people around within the network, the same support hasn’t always been there for those in indie agencies. “We can help supply that through the Alliance. We’re focusing on people more,” he says. 

And people need them now more than ever. “Everyone's totally overworked and stressed,” says Matt. “We need to make a big difference there. Our key currency is the talent that we've got and we need to look after them.”

The Alliance is keen to make demonstrable progress on these issues. For example, many of its members had to furlough staff when coronavirus hit, so MAAG developed Independents FC - an online community to keep furloughed staff in touch with the sector and make sure their skills don’t fade. “That’s the kind of tangible action that the Alliance has done for fellow workers, keeping people going during this time,” says Ruth. “I think it's been brilliant.” 

Moving forward, the help the Alliance provides for its members will take many forms, divided between the pillars of ‘purpose, people and performance’. The association will spend its time and resources lobbying for government support on issues such as safeguarding jobs, as well as providing independent agencies wider access to valuable resources and building on collaborations with other agency collectives. To date, these include Pimento, TheNetworkOne and Agencynomics.

The Alliance of Independent Agencies will continue to deliver the same high-quality services as MAAG, including learning and development, new business partnerships, networking and thought leadership, championing issues, a legal helpline, pitch protection, and agency purchasing power. 

Matt’s first priority will be to embark on an ambitious recruitment drive. “It's quite simple. That one metric will drive the success metrics of all across the organisation. It is strength in numbers, basically,” he says. “It means we’ll have a more powerful voice, can represent more people, and also the membership fees mean we have more budget to invest back into the organisation.” 

Ruth stresses that there’s plenty of positivity to take and run with as the independent agency sector enters a new phase. “We're coming out of lockdown and actually I think the resilience of the sector has been really impressive,” she says. “Going into it, you would assume that it would be disastrous, but actually I think our ability to flex our cost base and work with innovation, from what I've seen, people have really risen to the challenge. They’ve protected their teams and kept hold of their clients. There's a real energy about getting out and recovery. We're dusting ourselves down and we want to continue doing some amazing work, working with each other.”

Independent agencies can join the Alliance of Independent Agencies with their first month of membership free, here

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Alliance of Independent Agencies, Tue, 01 Sep 2020 13:52:55 GMT