Staying relevant in a time of  rapid transformation in the business landscape has proved a challenge for many industries. The creative one is no exception. CONOR BROPHY looks at how one Dublin agency has responded.

When VHI was planning a new paediatric clinic in Dublin it faced a problem familiar to any parent with young children: how do you take the fear out of a visit to a medical facility?

In the search for a solution the health insurer naturally sought advice from…its advertising agency. Actually this particular agency, Publicis, now uses the term “creative consultancy” to describe the service it provides to clients. Managing director of Publicis Dublin Padraig Burns feels this better explains how the company is transforming its offering in response to disruption being experienced both by its clients and the agency itself.

If we’re going to be saying we’re creative problem solvers, the first problem to solve is the disruption in our own industry

“If we’re going to be saying we’re creative problem solvers, the first problem to solve is the disruption in our own industry,” he says. That means finding a way to remain relevant, and profitable, in an era where consumer brands are moving spend away from traditional ad campaigns and the agencies which devise them. Digital ad spend will surpass traditional ad spend in the US this year, for the first time, according to eMarketer. Amid criticism around transparency of metrics used to gauge the effectiveness of some of that online spend brands are also laser focused on getting full value for their ad spend. Procter & Gamble, for example, is in the midst of a cost-cutting drive through which it plans to make $500 million a year in savings by reining in ad production costs and slashing agency fees.

Mark Ryan and Padraig Burns of Publicis

The impact of these trends in agency land is compounded says Burns, by the rise of tech titans such as Amazon, Google, Uber and Netflix, which have been less reliant on storytelling and more on consumer experience to build their brands.
Publicis’ newest non-executive director Mark Ryan, who joined the board earlier this year, is embracing these challenges. Ryan, former managing partner with Accenture, says he enjoys working with a business “in a very interesting industry that was being massively disrupted by technology” but which isn’t “caught in the headlights”.

Publicis’ response to the disruption has been to go back to core principles. “What there is here is a unique culture of creativity,” says Ryan. That ability, as he puts it, to approach a problem with a “blank piece of paper”. Approaching the issue in the same way it would a challenging client brief, the agency began to sketch out a solution on its metaphorical blank piece of paper. The emphasis was on finding the best way to utilise its intuitive grasp of what lies at the heart of all successful creative campaigns – understanding the consumer.

Armed with that insight the distance between creating clever ad content and divining clever ways to improve customer experience was not so much a leap as an obvious and natural next step.

“If you have a good experience you have affinity towards the brand and that’s positive brand equity. If there’s a really nice piece of communications (an advertising campaign) it’s also a positive experience that builds equity towards the brand,” says Burns.

As Mark Ryan explains, where Publicis might once have been called upon by clients simply to come up with the big idea behind an ad campaign, now it is applying creative brainpower in a different context for clients. “How do you take that idea and ensure that any interaction that a consumer has with that brand will be consistent and that creativity – whether it’s an app, a TV ad, whatever it is – it’s all consistent?”.

This requires clients to let Publicis loose on problems that would not traditionally have formed part of a brief sent to an “ad agency”. Happily from the Publicis perspective a number of longstanding clients have seen the value in doing so. VHI looked to the agency to help with customer experience design for its paediatric clinic. Irish Rail also sought its help for a complex, ongoing project to design a new lost property process for the state’s entire rail network.

Convergence
There was a certain amount of surprise at Publicis making these forays outside of what might have been considered its natural domain. “You’ve got people in board meetings saying: ‘That’s your creative agency doing that? I didn’t know they did that’. Because you’ve stepped outside the traditional barriers but, guess what, that’s the disruption and the convergence that’s happening. Everybody is stepping outside their traditional comfort zones and getting involved in, very simply, solving clients’ problems, not following traditional demarcation lines,” says Ryan.

Everybody is stepping outside their traditional comfort zones and getting involved in, very simply, solving clients’ problems, not following traditional demarcation lines

One clear sign of this convergence was the purchase by Accenture of the Irish creative agency Rothco. The former Accenture managing partner describes this as a sort of “external validation” of the Publicis approach. For the consulting firm to see the value in integrating the creative agency’s skillset into its business, for Ryan, underlines Publicis’ focus on the “convergence of brand experience and customer experience”.

That doesn’t mean, says Burns, that Publicis is on a journey to become a management consulting firm. Its selling point is as a “unique creative consultancy that has something the management consulting firms don’t have,” he says.

The transformation from “creative agency” to “creative consultancy” has still required that new skills be hired in, however. That means project managers, for starters.

“The single biggest skill people are out there looking for across any industry that I’m involved in is project managers. Project managers, project managers. This stuff is complex. It’s getting more and more complex all the time. If you’ve got that creativity and you can execute it right through the organisation it’s a deadly combination,” says Ryan.

Burns lists some of the skills now found in its Dublin offices. Apart from the highly prized project managers it also houses such varied professionals as videographers, journalists and music producers… “a blend of people that you just don’t find in other organisations”.

It’s blend that he believes contains all the right ingredients to help Publicis achieve the vision of a people-powered “creative consultancy” in a digitally-disrupted era. “Creativity in all of its manifestations is going to be increasingly important and I just don’t think you can write algorithms for it,” he says.