ZMI ALPHA:Big Vs Small – The move to an independent agency

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ZMI ALPHA:Big Vs Small – The move to an independent agency

Steven Burt

Steven Burt, group director, Customedia

From more than 200 to less than 20. Initial observations of the leap from multinational to indie.

After 14 years working in big agencies, I made the switch at the start of this year to join Customedia.

It is fair to say they have been flying under the radar for more than 20 years. The Manly-based media agency has built an impressive client base including Rest Super, QBE Insurance, Norwegian Cruise Line, Cancer Council Victoria, Heart Foundation, Pepper Home Loans and Peugeot to name a few.

Moving to Customedia was an initial shock, there is a lot of initial differences from the bigger agencies. I liked the big agency energy, working across big clients and budgets. I was warned by the Partners at Customedia that it would take some getting used to – they were not lying! Here are my initial insights from the first few weeks of indie agency life:

Serious Work-life Balance
The biggest initial shock was the work-life balance. The team get in before 9am and they are encouraged to leave at 5:30pm.

They work very solidly with minimal distractions but combined with a decent lunch break, enjoying the beautiful surrounds of Manly made me feel somewhat guilty when I left in the evening.

It is an interesting contrast to the ‘work hard, play hard’ culture which had previously been such an integral component of my career. While this does not provide the work-life balance it does potentially create a greater sense of team culture as we battle challenging deadlines.

Doing more with less
I have been impressed with the quality of work and more importantly the caliber of people. I admit to having, as it turned out, a somewhat uninformed perception that the quantity and quality of work would not be to the standard of a much larger agency (especially coming from strategically led agencies).

This misconception on my part was based on a mistaken belief that a smaller agency would not possess the requisite expertise, resources and specialised divisions. I was wrong. Across the board, the media planning proved to be best practice, and implementation smarts and digital expertise is deployed in abundance.

Although there are undeniable advantages to being part of a large holding group, especially in terms of resources and finger-tip access to in-depth market analysis; however, the agility and ability to be responsive to clients’ needs is a significant point of difference at a smaller agency.

Working on clients and campaigns, not admin
The involvement and focus of the senior leadership team on clients’ businesses is a clear advantage. The Partners and senior team know their client’s businesses intimately. Often that can be impractical to expect of senior management at larger agencies, due to sheer size of the client portfolio.

I have always been impressed with the passion of the new generation coming through the media ranks. Both at Customedia and at previous agencies, the drive to learn, hone their craft and produce superior work is inspiring.

The clear difference with an Independent however, is that the juniors are not bogged down on data entry or have the security of a specialised business unit, particularly for digital services. This means that for juniors with roughly a years’ experience are adept across Google and

Facebook digital marketing stack. I fear needing to have more intimate knowledge of these platforms in this new role…

Appetite and Ability to Change
Having thrived on implementing improvements to my team’s efficiencies at previous agencies, it was often difficult to migrate change across the entire organisation, being inhibited by managing multiple stakeholders and various counter motivations.

Working directly with the actual decision makers at the agency has been a welcome change. As the business owners and key stakeholders, they are receptive to innovation and change that they see as improving outcomes and quality for the clients.

Absence from agency discussion at an independent is positioning of the agency around collective themes, ideas, and behaviors. In recent times this has been in vogue, relating to theories such as Emotional Intelligence. I have experienced these concepts extensively at larger agencies with varying degrees of success. When executed well, the positioning or theme permeates through the agency and is endemic in all internal communications. When embraced and demonstrably practiced by senior leadership, it is paramount in winning new business. Culture is critical in our industry to project an image of stability and quality output. This is largely driven by the agency’s values and positioning.

Conversely, when agency values and collective behaviors are not embedded in the agency culture, and leaders do not exhibit behaviors they are espousing, the rank-and-file sense a lack of commitment. Apathy can set in, resulting in a decay in performance and culture. At an independent agency, I feel that there is an excellent opportunity to build a high-performance environment built on a collective set of principles and values that already exist – simply by bringing them to the forefront in our daily work lives.

Looking ahead
First impressions of an independent agency have been very positive. So far there have been many insightful revelations, particularly the high standard and sophistication of work produced. This is not a direct comparison against bigger agency counterparts whose work, processes, capacity, people can be and have been first class. It is more of a change in my perception of an independent agency life.

The nimbleness of the independent is exciting. The ability of an individual to positively influence both the agency and their clients is compelling. I am looking forward to the journey.

Steven Burt joined Customedia in January 2021 as Group Director working across QBE, Rest Industry Super and others. His previous experience was with UM leading NSW Government, Maserati, and Intuit accounts.

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