4A's Conference

Anomaly's Carl Johnson Says Freedom Is Key for Agency of the Future

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Carl Johnson, founding partner and global CEO of Anomaly, said the agency of the future must be free to make its own decisions.

4A's panelists Carl Johnson, Elizabeth Ross, Tamara Ingram, Barry Wacksman
4A's panelists Carl Johnson, Elizabeth Ross, Tamara Ingram, Barry Wacksman  Credit: 4A's

"I think the agency of the future will be run by people who are prepared to control their destiny and won't give it up," said Mr. Johnson, speaking at the 4A's Transformation Conference on Monday. "As soon as you give it up, it's no longer a passionate place that can attract the right people."

Anomaly, he said, is owned by a "smaller holding company," which is MDC Partners, but can make its own decisions. "We don't do timesheets because they drive the wrong behavior," said Mr. Johnson.

Similarly, Elizabeth Ross, president and CEO of independent agency Periscope, said the shop can focus on "client-centric decision making" because it's free to make the right choices and not push clients to spend more money in specific areas.

J. Walter Thompson CEO Tamara Ingram, however, said she feels "free and enabled" as part of the WPP network. "It's about results and doing the right thing and I think I have the resources to get the talent we need, and it's now about small being for the future and big being bad – it's a balance of both," she said.

Barry Wacksman, exec VP-global chief strategy officer at R/GA, said agencies, regardless of size or independence, need to focus on five downward pressures in order to become agencies of the future: procurement; the rise of in-house agencies; consultants diving into adland; Google and Facebook being friends and foes; and the increase of automation and artificial intelligence. He added that the best companies have a broad range of services that allow them not to be pigeonholed into one label, like consultancy or agency. "The whole aim is help companies grow," said Mr. Wacksman, who added that the hyper-competitive and hyper-globalized marketplace is making it even more difficult for companies today.

When the four panelists were asked what they are calling bullshit on right now in the industry, Mr. Johnson kicked off the responses by saying, "Nothing."

"I think it's the most complex time it's ever been, but the most exciting. I'm not calling bullshit on anything," he said.

Ms. Ross said she's calling bullshit on easy answers. "Moms love their kids. Let's make an ad about that."

According to Mr. Wacksman, the industry can sometimes "fetishize certain things," like storytelling, and agencies make that their whole business, but it's just one element of other problems.

Ms. Ingram's answer was the word "content" since anything today can be considered content.

One point all four panelists somewhat agreed on was the fact that a strong agency culture can provide a competitive edge and help attract and retain talent. And for a healthy industry future, Mr. Wacksman said adland has to figure out better ways to get the best and brightest young people interested in working at agencies rather than tech startups or Google or Facebook.

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