Our future is technology-led creativity

  • Everything is connected

In late 2018, WPP announced the creation of a new agency, VMLY&R. By uniting Y&R, one of the industry’s iconic agencies known for building many of the Fortune 500’s biggest brands with VML, one of the most forward-looking digital agencies in marketplace, VMLY&R’s proposition was to combine brand experience and brand advertising, drawing on the complementary expertise to create connected brands that drive value for clients.  

Two years since the bold move, including a pandemic that has elevated the power of digital everything, Jarred Cinman, CEO of VMLY&R in South Africa reflects on the merger, client expectations, a changing industry, and the future of advertising in South Africa and the rest of the world. 

Two years ago, an agency with a strong digital heritage merged with a more traditional through-the-line creative agency. Why? 

Ideally you’d ask Mark Read and the WPP Board this question! But if you want my opinion it’s that the world moved on. Digital went from something geeks did to something your grandmother comfortably uses to buy toothpaste and speak to her family in New Zealand. Both digital agencies and traditional agencies outlived their usefulness. Clients want an integrated approach and merging these two powerful businesses allowed for just that.

What success has the merger brought the business and its clients?

VMLY&R is probably the most successful creative business within WPP – and thus within the whole advertising industry. The expertise in across-the-line (ATL) skills has permeated the legacy VML businesses and vice versa with Y&R. There are no VMLY&R offices on the globe who don’t offer their clients a fundamentally broader offering than they did before.

In South Africa I would describe us as having grown up. Many of the traditional disciplines that we looked down on, or dismissed, have been re-embraced as central to our success. The digital arrogance has gone away and been replaced by a genuine appreciation for the decades of maturity that advertising had before we showed up. In return we have offered people who saw themselves as relics a new lease on life.

For clients the word is “integration” as well as a more sound product.

What is the value of an integrated approach to advertising and marketing?

We love this Paul Polman (former CEO of Unilever) quote that says “Every touchpoint with your customer is an ad”. That’s a profound idea. The call centre, an ad. The SMS, an ad. The website, an ad. When you look at it that way, the notion that you’d have anything other than a carefully orchestrated ecosystem with one guiding idea, one tone and one brand seems absurd. Any yet many brands still have this.

We believe at our best we can offer clients a way to pull the golden thread of their brand through every touchpoint. You may have seen recent news that Geometry will be merging with VMLY&R – adding even more touchpoints to this equation. And that’s the mission: the total customer interface all under one umbrella.

Does it matter to the market if they have the services of an ad agency, a digital agency, a PR agency, or a consultancy?

I think it does. Clients care about efficiency and return on investment more than ever. The party is over: advertising has to pay for its dinner. There is no version of the universe in which a whole flock of separate agencies working in isolation can be more efficient and effective than one (or a group) working together. The label isn’t important. It’s the service offered.

What does the proposition of creating “connected brands” really mean for the client and their brands?

We live in an age of connection. This concept has become both ironic and more important than ever in 2020. For many, the only connection is a digital stream of bits. If this year has taught us anything it’s how connections matter. Whilst it’s not a brand’s place to tell people how to connect with each other, it is incumbent on them to help people make those connections. And to foster a sense of interconnectedness.

Here’s a simple example. If a retailer uses its marketing money to make artists and musicians famous, the web of connections explodes. We did this for Edgars before the Covid meltdown and we will do it for many other brands here and worldwide.

How has the industry evolved since the merger?

Good question. In many ways it’s been a story of consolidation within networks and new challengers arriving. We have seen the birth of WundermanThompson, Publicis Power of One and just the other week the AKQA Group. But the shadow of Accenture and Deloitte has also crept over these big agencies. Don’t forget that Accenture is worth 10 times WPP’s market value on any day. It’s funny to think of WPP as David to some Goliath but it’s true. And even more so compared to the trillion dollar big tech players.

In South Africa we have also seen considerable progress made by black-owned agencies and transformed independents that have given the big guys a run for their money. A tighter economy just ups the ante. This has always been a competitive industry but the spectrum of competition has widened and the dominance of the holding companies has definitely weakened.

Having said all that, the basic proposition of an integrated agency with global knowledge is still there. I believe that Covid has opened that up and we will see a strong resurgence of these players (like us) in the months to come.

What does the future of advertising look like for VMLY&R?

I think I have mostly mapped this out – but to summarise: it’s about re-engineering every customer touchpoint, increasingly digital, to delight the consumer and engage them long-term with our clients’ brands. I don’t believe agencies should be wandering into areas like product design and business consulting out of fear of losing influence. Instead we should stand up for the disciplines we are good at and embrace the technology that can make these exponentially better.

As long as there is a customer to influence there is a place for creative advertising. Our future is in a technology-led version of this creativity for SA’s biggest brands.