Should Entire Agencies Be Run On The Creative Teams Model?

Traditionally, creative pairs – art director and copywriter – are a package deal, going together from client to client and agency to agency. We sit down with indie shop Journey Further’s James Addlestone, who reckons whole agencies could learn something from that model.

Marketing agencies’ approaches to talent and team shape have gone through some forced revolutions over the past few years – but could they all benefit from yet another major talent shift? Performance agency Journey Further’s chief strategy officer (and veteran of consultancies such as Deloitte and agencies including Rapp) James Addlestone reckons so.

When we sit down to ask Addlestone about his radical proposal to remake agencies’ team models, he’s very clear: “The way that agencies are set up is, to me, fundamentally wrong. And nobody’s spending enough time thinking about how they should be set up, from the ground up.”

Vertically challenged

“I’m a consultant by background, so I spend a lot of time helping companies understand how they should set themselves up. How centralized should they be? Should they set themselves up in verticals?” The answer to the latter, for Addlestone, is a resounding no. Most agencies, he says, follow a ‘vertical’ model, with closed-off disciplines for data, creative, strategy and marketing.

“We’ve set ourselves up in silos,” says Addlestone. “We don’t set ourselves up as other product teams would. If you were to build a product, say at Facebook, you’d work in a product team: a front-end developer, a back-end developer, a UX designer, a creative. You’d all be heading towards a single goal.”

Those silos exist both within and across agencies – for all the talk of full-service, “very rarely do you get an agency that’s actually good at creative and at performance.” Even where an agency does both good creative and brand work and good performance work, their worldviews are separate; “They’re heading in different directions: a performance team tasked with marketing in the short term and a brand team tasked with building brand collateral, with very little resemblance to those short-term goals.”

Account management as a function only serves to reinforce that siloed structure for Addlestone: “We have this world where [account managers] Half manage the client, half brief in a planner or strategist, who then brief in creative … it just makes no sense and it does account managers a disservice. You have some amazing account managers, but what they’re actually doing isn’t managing an account. They’re strategists. Think of any of the best account managers you’ve worked with: their skillset isn’t account management. It’s strategy. So they should be given the right tools to do their job better.”

The dream instead is a cross-functional team, inspired by the creative duo model, where expertise from those two perspectives – long-term brand and short-term performance – come together unimpeded by client services intermediaries. Ideally they form not a duo but a trio, rounded out by a brand strategist or insights specialist to knit together those two perspectives. “Whereas if you work with [a pure creative agency], you brief them to create a big TV ad without really thinking through or understanding how that would resonate through performance channels, what the short-term targets and metrics might be, or what the pricing strategy should be. All that thinking needs to come together.”

Team matters

How an agency sets up its teams is one thing, but just maybe (thinks Addlestone) hiring teams in a way inspired by creative duos could fix even more of the industry’s ills. “I’ve always found that model interesting – it’s different to pretty much any job in the world. It works because you hire people who complement each other. Traditionally, you’re only ever hiring one person at a time, so you end up with a complete lack of diversity. It’s the same job description every time, with no longer-term thinking. You haven’t actually hired a team that works; you’ve hired a series of individuals.

“I think we massively underestimate team dynamics; especially at mid- to senior-weight, the team dynamics they bring are probably more important than their individual output. If you can’t hire people who will work well together, you’re never going to get the dynamics right.”

That could take two forms: if project teams at agencies were set up in ‘sticky’ trios, sticking together from client to client, hiring into those teams could be done on the basis of fit with that particular trio, rather than with the wider ‘ vertical’ team in the status quo. More radically, could agencies hire teams together, as with creative duos?

Or, more radically still, “Imagine if you have a grad scheme, and you decide that you’re also operating as a recruitment agency, and treat it like a football transfer market. You’d be incentivized to give the best training possible, knowing that you would get money when you ‘sold’ them on to a bigger agency … there’d be something in that if there was a way of mitigating all the moral challenges associated with it.” This last idea might be a joke, but it’s also a provocation: how seriously are agencies really taking team development?


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