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Why Independent Agencies Are the Most Effective in Ireland

London, UK
LBB’s Alex Reeves speaks to leaders from the four Gold-winning agencies at the first Effie Awards Ireland to ask what is making their work so effective, and why now?

The inaugural Effie Awards Ireland took place in 2021. That’s telling in itself - a sign, perhaps, of the priorities of the country’s creative industries. But the results of the effectiveness award competition tell another interesting story: of the seven Gold Effies awarded, every one went to an independent agency, and six of those went to Irish independent agencies (Mother London took the seventh). 

Curious whether this might be more than a coincidence, I gathered together leaders from the four independent Irish creative agencies that won the Gold Effies to discuss the work that works.

One project received two Gold Effies: The Shop That Nearly Wasn’t for Breakthrough Cancer Research won in both the Public Service, Government & Utilities category and the Small Budget – Less than €50k category. Remarkably, it was also a campaign divided by the newest creative agency on the Irish scene, The Brill Building. 

The project saw the charity open the world’s first shop and events space entirely stocked and staffed by cancer survivors, in Dublin on World Cancer Day (February 4th, 2020), to raise funds and highlight the urgent need for greater investment in cancer research.

Roisin Keown, founder and ECD of The Brill Building describes why she thinks it was so effective: “We had to reframe cancer as something that you can live beyond. And we had to show that research is the thing that's doing that.” Cancer research seems remote from real life, so the shop was a way to show the impact it can have. “The thing that people have responded to is that we've tied research to the relative sitting at your dining room table. And I guess we just took that on a step further and said maybe the dining room table is only there because of research as it was made by a cancer survivor.” 

The power of that idea could immediately be felt. But the shop became more than a way to communicate an idea. “The shop became kind of a place of pilgrimage to be honest. People just came to stand in a place of hope. They might have lost someone, might have been going through cancer themselves.” 

That was an emotional by-product of the core task for The Brill Building though. “Our task was to make an unknown cancer research organisation that's doing world class work famous,” says Roisin. “No one had heard of them really beyond the region of Cork. We couldn't make the brand famous without making research famous.”

That piece of work helped bolster Breakthrough Cancer Research donations through the pandemic to the extent that they were able to invest more in cancer research at the end of 2020 than they had in 2019.

She sees a broader lesson in creativity in this case too. “A campaign can really galvanise an organisation and how it talks about itself the whole year through. And that's why these effectiveness awards are really important - for showing the value of a creative idea, a great story, that it really drives results even beyond the paid media.”

Catrióna Campbell, managing partner at The Public House, agrees that what she calls ‘organisational ideas’ like this are one of the key ways that agencies like hers and Roisin’s can unlock potential with their clients. “It's actually about their mission in the world,” she says. “It’s like ‘this is your mission.’”

That’s exactly what The Public House did with EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum while creating the Gold Effie-winning case, ‘A little museum taking on big stereotypes’.

“Immigration has just been such a part of our national identity,” says Catrióna on the work that won in Leisure, Media, Sport, Travel and Gaming. “But when people come to Ireland, what they're seeking is an understanding of what it actually means to be Irish. That's why they go to Guinness, that's why they go to the leprechaun museum. But they're not getting the answer of what it really means to be Irish until they go to EPIC. You walk through EPIC and it shows you the impact that Ireland has had all over the world, not just in the obvious things like music and literature, but in design and fashion and science and technology - the first kind of caesarean section was done by an Irish female doctor who had to pretend to be a man. We invented the submarine! This was a gift of a business problem because they had a world class product, and they didn't know how to advertise it. 

“It wasn't one campaign; it was coming back to them with an enduring brand idea and then, across a period of two years, identifying the right moments to really activate that.”

The Public House worked with EPIC on activations for St. Patrick's Day, where they allowed “paddywhackery and plastic-paddy-ism” to be exchanged for a free ticket to EPIC. This organisational idea also enabled the brand to target Donald Trump and his views on immigration when he came to Ireland. 

“It's been a real demonstration of the power of a strong brand idea that enables you to get into different conversations, at any point of time and still be relevant in those conversations,” says Catrióna. “We talked a lot about cultural relevance.” Not to mention the sharp wit and humour that not only makes these campaigns fun, but also worked for the brand - proof that purposeful work doesn’t have to be po-faced. “I think it’s well for everyone to take that into all the other purposeful work,” says Roisin to her fellow agency leader. “Purpose is making a difference in the world. We've all responded as Irish people, as well as creatives, to the work you've done with EPIC. It’s work that speaks for me. That's really lovely and then to see the humour, the more fun we can have in advertising, the better.”

‘The Connected Island’ for mobile network Three Ireland was one of the projects that attracted ECD Bridget Johnson to Irish indie agency Boys+Girls. It also won the agency (as well as Core, who worked on the campaign) a Gold Effie in the Business to Business category, following its earlier success at Cannes Lions 2021, where it won Gold for Creative Strategy.

Three have a proven track-record when it comes to serving consumers. But one area they needed to showcase their capabilities was among Irish businesses, specifically servicing large-scale enterprises. The agency could have connected an entire business with world-class ICT solutions, but took an altogether more inspiring approach. Instead, the team at Boys+Girls decided to connect a whole island, making it the world’s first smart island in the process.

Bridget points out how it worked because the project solved a real life problem. “Sometimes in award shows work is put in front of you that you question whether it is a problem that's been created for awards, or is it a real problem? And this was an island kind of facing extinction.”

It inspired Bridget in no small part. “I'm a fan of a great demo I have to say. And for me this is just a really very elegant, consistent, and considered demonstration of the power of Three's tech.”

It’s also continued way beyond just the short window of many campaigns, as Three maintains that tech. The island has, Bridget says, become something of a blueprint for other islands in need of greater connection.

Boys+Girls also took home a Gold in the Sustained Effectiveness category for their automotive client ŠKODA - a feat which Bonfire creative director Seán Hynes is keen to celebrate. “I was really delighted that they got their long-term award for ŠKODA. It's a brilliant example of creative advertising at the coalface. I just love it because it's consistent, really strong creative, great personality, and it's just a brilliant example of really effective, great advertising.”

Bridget, who didn’t get to work on the client until she moved to Ireland this year, agrees. “It’s sticking to the knitting, but also such a simple proposition, continuously creatively handled. And there's a lot of craft in that work as well, which is amazing. I'm not sure. It's that easy to win an effectiveness award on such a global brand as ŠKODA. So hats off.”

Seán's own agency won a Gold Effie for the charity ALONE in the category Small Budget – Less than €50k for the entry ‘You are not alone. The lifeline support line.’ He points to something that some of the other Irish indie leaders mention often: how an independent agency can often feel closer to its clients’ businesses. “I think as independent agencies, we are a little more invested in the actual success of our clients business,” he says. “We're that much closer. We turn to people and say ‘we're gonna help your business’. That's it. We just live and breathe on helping other people's businesses.

“In this case we were given a challenge at the start of the pandemic. ALONE set up this phone line and the single biggest problem was they could not reach out to people unless people reached out to them. And it was because most of the people we were trying to reach out to didn't see themselves as ‘a charity person’, when actually, they desperately needed help.

“All we cared about at that at that instance was, what are we going to do to make this work? We put our creative lens on it. The core to anything we've done over the years is being respectful to the audience. And I think that hopefully stood out.”

So why are independent agencies doing so much work that works for their clients in Ireland? Bridget thinks there’s something in what Seán says about the melding with a client that an indie can achieve. “There is an energy to an indie, I think that's maybe slightly more maverick, maybe slightly more energetic and I think it's something to do with what Seán said about literally walking the journey with your clients.”

This closeness doesn’t mean agreeing all the time though. Seán attests that the reason the work these indie agencies have done is effective, is because they don’t care about pleasing their clients in meetings as much as they care about delivering results. Which has led to some “robust conversation”. Recently Seán had one of those with a client. Afterwards he asked: “‘I wonder, was I a bit too robust?’.” The client was fine with it, recognising that it stems from passion. “I put it back to her saying ‘look, all we care about is what's going to actually work here.’ And I think at the end of the day I got respect for it.”

Roisin notes that there is a great deal of luck in any award win. So she doesn’t write off the idea that maybe this year’s indie dominance was a fluke. But she adds: “I don't think it's a coincidence that we're indie agencies. I think that there is less process, more partnership, less things in the way to the good idea and getting it out in the world, in indie agencies at any scale.”

Independent agencies tend to be creatively run and this debunks the story that creativity doesn’t equal effectiveness

There are certain assumptions made about independent agencies. One is that they are creative led, which is often true. But that doesn’t paint the whole picture as Catrióna sees it. “We're a creative-led agency, founded by creatives. But we believe that creativity equals effectiveness. I don't know if that's necessarily the narrative that is out there. I think there's a perception that a small indie shop is indulging in creativity for creativity's sake, as opposed to for commercial or for business results.” The results of the Effie Awards Ireland 2021 seem to suggest otherwise.

She reflects on the collective energy that Bridget mentioned, thinking back to something a creative director she admires used to say. “His view was, we're different departments, we all do different jobs, but our one goal is about building really creative campaigns because our goal is always effectiveness, and creativity is the tool. That's what we've been trying to show.

“All I know from my experience of working in both network agencies and independent agencies is [at an independent agency] I have a hell of a lot less conversations about profits, and a hell of a lot more conversations about product. I don't ever use the term client service because I've never served anyone in my life. It's about what we're selling, we sell creative product.” 

This explains a lot of how agencies like The Public House are able to deliver such effective work. “When you think about what you sell as a product, it just unlocks all of the stuff that needs to go with it. You can have sharper elbows and you know you can disagree with the client without falling out because it's about the work that's on the table, as opposed to looking after the relationship. 

“It's not like I row with my clients but I let them know if I think that they're making the wrong decision. That’s guardianship. And I think that's connected to what Seán was saying. You're so invested in them getting it right, that you're preparing to have those difficult conversations because that's the sole focus. All the energy is around making that great work, not because you're indulging yourself but because you believe it's what's going to transform their business.”

If this has always been true of Ireland’s independent agencies though, why is this a particularly important time? It’s worth considering the pandemic’s influence on the Irish advertising market here. Thanks to the pressures it’s put so many brands under, effective advertising has “never mattered more,” in Catrióna’s summation. “In terms of the business results that your clients genuinely need and rely on. A lot of clients have had a really tough 18 months and I think the stakes were raised for all of us.”

Bridget has seen that at Boys+Girls too. “Maybe Covid has made us more focused,” she says. “Nobody wants to mess around anymore. Maybe pre-Covid there was a time when you were slightly more routine, maybe just going through the motions some of the time. Covid gave everybody a moment to pause. And now we’re back we’ve got to make it happen. And maybe you feel that a little bit more in indies because there's nowhere to hide.”

The Public House, who has been around for 10 years, tries to maintain this energy, but Catrióna’s excited about the independent spirit that seems strong in Ireland right now, with The Brill Building the latest business to join the pack of older indie agencies in Ireland. And now they are armed with a body of proof that Irish indie agencies are delivering for their clients.  “I worked in London when there was a new indie shop every month,” she says. “I don't think we have a burgeoning indie scene [in Ireland]. Could this be the start of it? Could this give other people more confidence if they have a view and a philosophy, that now is the time to go for it? There is enough room for more indie agencies out there. I'm kind of hopeful that this might give someone else the confidence that they can go and do it.”

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