Once consumed by over-the-top pitches and whisky cocktails, ad agencies in 2015 are far more complex beasts. Just ask Leo Burnett CEO Peter Bosilkovski.
This year, the agency ditched the traditional model and has gone all in, rolling out its ‘Connect’ strategy to offer clients the full sweep of social, PR, digital, shopper, business consultancy data and full-service media through Starcom MediaVest. For an agency that claims to no longer pitch for business, Bosilkovski certainly knows how to sell it.
“I’ve been very overt about where we are going. It’s not about creating a point of difference in the marketplace, it’s about what our clients need and how we can help them,” he says. “We are about creating far greater value for our clients’ businesses. That’s the road for us and that excites everyone here.”
And so far, it seems to be working.
Along with snagging a spate of awards, including AdNews Agency of the Year, last month the agency took over Canon’s $11 million media account from MediaCom - without a pitch.
It followed Diageo consolidating its creative, digital, PR and media with Leo Burnett just over a year ago. The agency has been Canon’s creative shop for over a decade, so it understood the brand’s approach and its need to move away from advertising cameras in a traditional sense to do “things no one expects”.
“What lures a Diageo or Canon to this model is the strategic thinking,” Bosilkovski says. “For us there’s no bias in terms of where we place ads, which for a client is nirvana.”
Appointed CEO after Todd Sampson stepped down in August, Bosilkovski says while the new “media-agnostic” model won’t “appeal to everyone” the agency must change or it will become irrelevant.
“For 77 years, we’ve been an advertising agency. It was relevant and ground-breaking when it was founded, but companies like Google and Uber weren’t around,” he says.
Over the past 18 months, Bosilkovski admits there have been staff exits, with most now holding posts overseas at Facebook, Google, Buzzfeed and Twitter, rather than other agencies.
“We’re constantly changing and creating work that isn’t similar to other entities,” he says. “Maybe we’ll create a new product or develop a new service. That’s the vision we’ve put out for the past 18 months. Those who have subscribed to it and bought into that way of working are here.”
While he won’t confirm how many more staff will be needed to accommodate the agency’s new model, Bosilkovski says, a major investment in training will “upskill” employees in order for them to better solve clients’ business problems.
According to Bosilkovski, it’s taken more than a year for employees to start thinking differently, citing the agency’s worldfirst live-streaming of a birth using Samsung’s Gear Virtual Reality headset, and developing a cookie made by Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi for Singleton Whisky, as examples of work that embrace the ‘Connect’ model.
He claims implementing a new strategy and trying to create “ideas that break through categories” means the agency no longer pitches for new business. “We have been approached, and we’ve said no,” Bosilkovski explains. “We’ve got great new clients and amazing projects on the run and that’s where our energy goes. This is the only industry that puts so much focus on pitching. Why do we need to say we’re ashamed we don’t pitch?
“We’ve had 35% [revenue] growth over the past year. There’s been a lot to bed down, including winning Woolworths and Big W. Taking people off accounts and putting them on pitches we may or may not win doesn’t really make sense. I hope new clients come to us based on this new strategy.”
New business wins have a ripple effect on agencies. In late 2014, industry speculation was that the company was laying off about 20 senior execs, including staff from art, broadcast and copy. At the time, market speculation was that the Woolworths account and boosting its media offering were putting pressure on the agency.
However, in the past year, the agency has seen 35% staff growth, bringing the headcount to 170. This includes recruiting Emma Montgomery to lead the Connect strategy, and bringing on three new strategy directors: Emily Taylor, Graham Alvarez and Ross Cameron. But for now, Leo’s, an agency with an 80-year-old heritage and whose founder’s thinking about visual imagery has come to define much of the modern advertising environment, is on a winning streak.
“We were so grateful to be acknowledged and named AdNews Agency of the Year because, while we are an established agency with history, we are still relevant. For me that’s the most rewarding thing,” Bosilkovski explains. “In seven years, we haven’t lost a client. We’ve resigned a piece of business, but we haven’t lost business. And that’s testament to our staff.”
For Bosilkovski, the holy grail is figuring out a client’s purpose and understanding clients’ consumers more than them. It’s an all-in agency philosophy that is summed up by Bosilkovski’s personal mantra: “everything you want is on the other side of fear”, a quote from US author and motivational speaker, Jack Canfield. And it’s unashamedly plastered across his office wall against a backdrop of Evel Knievel jumping the Grand Canyon.
“Brands that are standing out are the ones killing categories,” Bosilkovski says. “They’ve got a fearless nature in the way they approach business. They’re not scared. They don’t know what the other side will look like, but they’re going for it.”
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