Plan A's Andrew Essex: 'The industry is ripe for reinvention'
What do you do after writing a book called “The End of Advertising?” If you’re Andrew Essex, you co-found an advertising company.
The advertising veteran launched Plan A last year, he says, with a different model in mind than the traditional holding company; “a leaner model, a lighter operating system.” Founded with MT Carney, Plan A is a collection of shops that includes Van’s General Store, Untitled Worldwide, Twin Studio and Beekman Social.
“It’s a new kind of holding company,” says Essex, a guest on this week’s Ad Lib podcast. “We tried to set up something that was an alternative for clients. They have two options right now: They can go to a Madison Avenue entity or they can hire a bunch of boutiques. Both have problems. So what’s a simpler model? Centralized account management and strategy and then allocate to a collection of boutiques who are best in class. But we give the client one [master service agreement] so it’s one throat to choke.”
At some point, he hopes to make acquisitions in the PR, or crisis communications space, and maybe voice. All of which invites the question: If he believes the advertising model is fundamentally broken, how does his holding company differentiate? For starters, he claims to stand out in stark contrast to another agency veteran launching a new collection of agencies: Martin Sorrell, who practically invented the model with WPP, beginning in 1985 and is starting from scratch at the age of 74 with his new venture S4.
“I fundamentally disagree with Martin’s worldview, which is that the opportunity is in data and analytics,” says Essex. “He’s forgetting what we’re good at in this business. I’m not as interested in plumbing as I am in poetry.“ Which is not to say data isn't hugely important, just that it ultimately will be automated.
Essex joins the podcast on a week that Plan A acquired Helo, an experiential shop, and days after it was announced that one recent acquisition, the small agency Badger and Winters, would be parting ways with the collective. “We had a Brexit,” says Essex. “They’re very good at what they do and we found that a lot of their focus was not necessarily what our clients were looking for. We basically decided it wasn’t working.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Essex weighs in on the power of creativity as a differentiator, or “work that actually generates its own audience that doesn’t require a ton of paid media,” he says. “I don’t like idea of jamming crap down people’s throats.” It was with a similar ethos that, in 2006, Essex left a successful career in journalism—he had been on staff at the New Yorker and was at one point the managing editor of Details—to start a small agency called Droga5, with David Droga. Of Droga5’s recent acquisition by consulting giant Accenture, Essex sees great opportunity for the agency. “I think it’s going to have tremendous impact on the industry,” he says.
Another thing that’s likely going to have an impact on the industry: a possible recession. A prolonged economic downturn, he says, will likely force a reckoning on much of advertising or, as he calls it, “a Darwinian correction. Do we need all these different agencies, all these different boutiques?” he asks. “The entire thing is toppling over and rebooting itself, the entire industry construct is ripe for reinvention.”
He parted ways with that agency in 2015 and subsequently became the CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, which puts on the annual film festival. Through it all, though, he says his background as a journalist has helped shaped how he reads the world. “As an editor you’re trained to determine what’s interesting and what isn’t interesting,” he says. “Much of this current industry just assumes things are interesting; that’s just not the case. You learn to curate, which is a really important skill. Having worked in publishing two decades ago you develop pattern recognition. You see when things are going south.”