This Q&A is an adaption of a conversation between Coegi’s SVP of Marketing Innovation, Ryan Green, and John Harris, President of WPI, where they offer invaluable perspectives on the changing landscape of CMO roles, the evolving needs of brands, and the advantages independent agencies have in meeting a brand’s marketing needs.
The following is an edited transcript of The Loop Marketing Podcast. Click here to listen to the full episode on one of your favorite streaming platform.
Ryan Green: Hello everybody. Welcome back to The Loop Marketing Podcast. I’m Ryan Green, the Senior Vice President of Marketing Innovation at Coegi, and I’m honored to be joined by John Harris. He’s the president of Worldwide Partners.
As a little bit of a background, Coegi just joined Worldwide Partners this year. Worldwide Partners is a group of independent agencies, about 80 agencies worldwide that cover the full gambit of marketing services, from creative to production to branding to media and data services. John has done a spectacular job of bringing together some of the brightest minds, a worldwide of agencies and innovative groups, that are really contributing to some breakthrough marketing and advertising campaigns. It’s an honor to join your network and it’s an honor to have you today John. So thanks for joining us.
John Harris: Ryan, Thank you and we couldn’t be happier to have Coegi joining the network. You’ve been a fabulous edition and really contributing at a very high level. So, officially welcome and looking forward to our conversation.
Ryan: Yeah, and it’s a pertinent one as so much is changing in marketing even before the pandemic but certainly afterwards. The value of truly collaborative partners to brands I think, the lens of that has changed – at least the 10 years that I’ve been at Coegi, but certainly recently too. Independents have an interesting strategic advantage in a lot of situations to be able to really integrate with the business goals of the brands that we’re representing and to bring forth the right tools and the right people to cut through a lot of the red tape, to be more quick and nimble.
I’d love to hear more about the genesis of your involvement with Worldwide Partners. What ultimately led you to found the network? What’s your background?
John: Sure, well, I’ll start way back when, but I’ll be brief because I’m not sure everybody wants to hear my whole history. I first started in marketing working for a radio station in Houston, Texas as the station mascot. So if you think those big old wooden radios that were rounded at the top. The mascot was called the Runaway Radio, it was a red one with a lightning bolt on the top and a slit over my head and had white tights and big red shoes, and had no peripheral vision in this costume.
Ryan: I’m disappointed that you did not wear that today for the podcast.
John: Yeah, well, I thought about it, but my job was to go to station events and interact and dance with the listeners. We would do a broadcast on a Saturday morning at a McDonald’s. We were promoting McDonald’s breakfast and meals. At the time local radio station jocks were celebrities so people wanted to see them. We’d have 500 people show up while we were doing a live broadcast and at lunchtime we would go to a car dealership and broadcast from there, and another 500 people would show up, and 300 of them were at breakfast with us. Then that evening we would do something in a nightclub and broadcast, and another 600 people showed up, and 300 of them were at the car dealership. So I was just fascinated by a brand’s ability to literally move people from place-to-place and I think that’s where I first got my bug for this very early on.
I first got into the agency business working for Wunderman at a holding company, managing sports marketing for Miller Brewing Company. From there, I moved to Colorado to work at an independent agency that was actually a reverse trend of what we’re seeing now, which was Coors taking their in-house marketing team and then outsourcing it. So a new agency was set up and they recruited those of us from around the country that had beer experience. When I came there, I was fortunate enough to work on Coors, Procter & Gamble and McDonald’s. After that I went client side at a fast casual restaurant chain called Smashburger. Then, I went to the performance marketing space and back to the client side as a CMO.
Finally, I was on LinkedIn and saw an ad that said Global Advertising Network in Denver, which is where I live. Those words do not end up in the same sentence very often. I explored this and saw that there was an independent agency network out there. I wasn’t familiar with the independent agency network model, and I saw an opportunity to take some of the background that I had at the agency side and at the client side. In both of those, it was really building out service platforms. As a client, I was selecting my performance media agency, I was building a creative team, I was finding the right experiential partner and bringing them together to collaborate, as you talked about earlier. Then, on the agency side, I was building cross-functional, cross-office teams to service clients. So the opportunity to do it at the global level and do it with independent agencies was just a fascinating opportunity for me. So, now you and I are here seven and a half years later having a conversation.
Ryan: That’s a great background and I love always working with people that have an unorthodox background.
Let’s dive in a little bit about independents, right? I think that’s the one thing that brings us together. When you hear talk about the value of independent [agencies] and the partnerships we bring, maybe to somebody who for the first time that they’re considering picking an agency at all, or getting out of the holding company and into a realm of new possibilities, how do you talk about the value that independents bring versus either in-house teams or holding company agencies?
John: Yeah, I think, what’s been an incredible trend of clients moving more and more towards independent agencies. I think we had this moment, I don’t know, seven or eight years ago, where you were seeing more independent agencies being invited to pitches that may have typically been the territory of the large holding companies. I think that moment turned into a movement because clients are recognizing that independent agencies can bring a level of agility and speed.
You mentioned the collaborative spirit early on and it’s really an entrepreneurial spirit, right? If you look at a holding company model, these are publicly traded companies. They have an obligation at the end of the day, no matter what, to deliver a positive return for their shareholders. In the independent agency world, you have the freedom to do what’s right for the clients. Sometimes that is investing more in a client’s business. And, when we do that as an agency, that’s not the client’s problem – that’s our problem. It’s our decision to make because we’ve had the ability to do it, but it really changes it from a shareholder mindset to a stakeholder mindset. I think independent agencies always put senior level talent on the business because, let’s face it, clients don’t need just arms and legs, they need heads. You’re a senior representative on the Coegi team and I’m sure you are working with your clients each and every day. So, having the business leadership, the business mindset, and ensuring you’re having the most senior level people working on your business each and every day, is a significant value that independent agencies bring to the table.
Also with freedom comes the freedom to challenge. Clients will come to us and they’ll say, look, here’s what we want you to do. Independent agencies are always going to say here’s really what we think you should do and challenge, not in an argumentative way, but in a collaborative way without the fear of saying, “oh my God, if we lose this account, then we’re not going to get our bonuses.” You just have people who bring it every day and come with a business mindset, and they’re going to get it done no matter what it takes. I think that’s a very, very unique value proposition that independent agencies have alone.
Clients aren’t going to hire us just because we’re independent. At the end of the day, we have to bring those behaviors and demonstrate that we can actually move their business forward. That is ultimately what clients are looking for.
Ryan: Yeah, I’ll definitely steal the stakeholders vs. shareholders verbiage. That’s really significant too because a lot of times it is the owners that are still involved with creating the strategy and pushing our clients forward too. A lot of times I think that’s probably pretty obvious with branding creative shops. The work almost speaks for itself, but that’s also true with media.
As an independent media agency that has seen the proliferation of programmatic and automated media buying, I can tell you that that’s not true. In fact, the push for shareholders as the primary focus has hidden a lot of fees and a lot of baggage underneath the surface at holding companies that don’t really exist with independents from the media side. Is that something that you’ve seen? Or am I just painting a rosy picture of why independent media agencies actually do have a strategic advantage by bringing the client’s business first, by bringing senior people who aren’t doing the bait and switch from pitch to execution?
John: Absolutely. Well let’s tackle it from a couple of fronts. I think on the media front, there is a perception that bigger is better. That this antiquated idea of buying power is what’s driving, what is an extremely democratized digital media environment now. I mean, the programmatic tools that either agencies have, in some cases, have built, or have access to, have 100% leveled the playing field. So this is no longer a story of “what is your media spend?” So I think technology, the platforms, have democratized it.
I also think that when you look at the upfront side, even on the digital side of it, holding company agencies are buying this inventory. If you’re not their top client, you’re not going to get the best inventory. So that doesn’t happen in the independent space, right? We go at this and put the value of the relationship with the media publishers over the spend. We have agencies that have all of the same level of access to alphas and betas from these major publishers that the holding companies have and we’re not coming in with a pre-packaged solution. You guys are bringing this at a very, very customized level based on what the client needs, not based on what a holding company agency might have to sell. So you’re absolutely right. It’s no longer the case.
Then the bait and switch that you referenced, we were in a pitch yesterday. A global pitch with a major brand that I can’t share right now. We told them, this isn’t the pitch team. This is your team and it was myself and the senior level executives, and these are the people that are working on the business. So, yes, that’s what you’re going to get from an independent agency. So it’s a big advantage.
Ryan: When you look within independents, what are the things that you look for, especially as you’re attracting and evaluating independent agencies joining your network? What are the things that you’re looking for that differentiate good and great?
John: Let’s start with the customer, the CMO, and why our value proposition as a network is relevant to the CMO and then how that cascades down to the agencies that join us and what separates good from great.
Change is a constant for CMOs. They are consistently having to innovate, to push the business forward. Resources are limited; we could all use more resources. They articulated that there were some internal gaps in skills that they had with their team that they needed to support with outside partners. There was almost, maybe a level of anxiety around having to constantly prove marketing value. That this is not an expense, but rather, it’s creating value for the organization overall. That’s a matter of driving growth, so this is not an easy job as a CMO.
There’s a high degree of pressure that comes with it. You are trying to do two things: you are trying to minimize risk and you’re trying to maximize impact. So when you talk to the most progressive CMOs, what they’re doing is, they’re building out these marketing ecosystems. It’s around subject matter expertise.
So when they are trying to identify the right agency partners that may manifest itself in an RFP, what they’re really doing when they issue an RFP is they’re issuing an RFE, which is a request for expertise. Sometimes that expertise is by market, it’s by industry vertical, it’s by audience, it’s by channel, it’s by capability. At the end of the day, by surrounding themselves with experts, just going back to the CMOs goal, they want minimized risk and maximized impact. That’s how we’ve engineered the network, and this solution can meet the very precise needs and business challenges of today’s marketers and through one of the largest and most fastest growing independent networks in the world.
What makes this proposition unique is that the agencies [in Worldwide Partners] are 100% committed to collaboration within each other. We’ve talked about the holding companies, we talked about the fact that they’re publicly traded and that they’re using acquisition to create scale and diversification to offer clients and deliver value to shareholders. In our model, we’re actually set up as a reverse holding company. I didn’t “found” the network, right? I don’t “own” the network. The network was founded 85 years ago which is crazy to think about, and the agencies actually own the network.
My accountabilities are to a board of directors of agency leaders around the globe and we work together to set the goals and the strategies. What happens here is, rather than the network dictating the terms to the agencies, the agencies are actually dictating the terms to the networks. So what that means for clients is, you’re going to get some of the top independent agencies in the world. We have experts in 90 different industry verticals, we have everything from performance and digital media agencies to creative agencies to experiential agencies to PR agencies.
So let’s go back to what CMOs want. They are saying, I need this in this market with this capability. For example, I don’t just need a pharma agency, but I need a pharma agency in New Jersey that has child oncology experience and a UX capability, and med ed tech capabilities. What we’re able to do is when a remit comes in is say, yes, we have that. Yes, that may sound like a holding company, but what’s fundamentally different is we have not acquired all of these agencies and said, you guys come together, push clients between each other’s offices, cross sell services and make our shareholders all this money. These agencies are working together because they’ve chosen to work together, not because they have to work together. That element of opting in is the only incentive that they need to work together, because every agency has made a personal commitment that I want to be a part of this. We’re going to give you everything you need and nothing that you don’t, right? We’re not here to oversell.
So, that’s kind of how we’ve shaped the network proposition. 84 agencies in 46 countries, 40 of them are full service, 12 media, 6 creative, and 26 specialist agencies.
Ryan: The brilliance of it is thinking and really tapping into what the CMO needs. You talked about how they’re trying to build an ecosystem, and you’ve built an ecosystem essentially that can cover all of those CMOs needs and be able to pick the three needs that they have to fit their ecosystem. Everything becomes customized to what their brand, their business needs.
That being said, I think even the title Chief Marketing Officer, is under siege a little bit. There’s Chief Growth officers, Chief Revenue Officers that you’re seeing more. I’ve been to a couple of the ANA conferences that have Chief Media Officers that are separate from the Chief Marketing Officer. There’s always the friction between finance and the CFOs wanting to have an ROI calculation for every single breath that the CMO takes. So being able to sit and understand where they’re coming from, where their challenges are, and what their customer’s challenges are too, goes another layer deeper. We’re able to do that and I’m so thankful to be part of Worldwide Partners because I’m smarter now as a marketer. Because of the collective experience that I’ve gotten from working with such a great ecosystem of agencies that you’ve built.
John: If I might build on something that you said when you were talking about the evolution of the title of CMO. Chief Growth Officer, Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Product Officer, Chief Commercial Officer, it all comes back to what I talked about earlier of the requirement of demonstrating value. I don’t want to make this about myself, but I think it’s important for us to all understand this context. When I became a CMO, I was thrilled. I was invigorated because having been on the agency side for 15 years, where you are consistently trying to uncover the right insight and bring forth strategies, now I was gonna be on the other side of the table. I was going to get to make the call, right? It was on me. So I went into the role thinking that now I’m going to be able to work on the brand of the business and make the decision.
But the reality of it is, 95% of that CMOs job or Chief Growth Officers job, or whatever you want to call it, has absolutely nothing to do with media and with making decisions on creative campaigns. It is a marketing operations role. It is managing through a matrix organization. It is looking and understanding the impact of adding a different label to one sweater and the cost implications of that on EBITDA. It is doing menu board optimization and understanding what’s more profitable. Do we do a free drink with a burger or a free fried egg with a burger? You are forecasting out the operational component of the marketing implications.
So when you think about it, if agencies are not focusing on the 95% of what the CMOs job is, you are nothing but a commoditized resource. If you’re only focused on delivering the 5% of their role, then you are replaceable. Not to get ahead of, one of our questions I know we’re going to explore is, what makes a good independent agency a great independent agency. The great independent agencies are saying, I need to be up here in this 95% helping and adding value to my client’s job there. Not just in the, just purely in the media and the creative side of it.
Ryan: Then leading into the question that you know was coming, do great agencies then have a really intimate understanding of the customer, of our clients, and are empowering the brands that we’re working with to have even more astute understanding of those customers to empower the CMO, to bridge those conversations between the spreadsheet and the customer?
John: Without question. I think that with the great independent agencies, quite honestly there’s no shortage of data. But, what the CMO and the CEO don’t need is another dashboard. They don’t need a weather report. They need someone who’s going to extract the meaningful data from the dashboards and say, this is happening, and why do I care? What are the implications of this for my business? What are we going to do differently because of the data? I think that’s where agencies have an opportunity to really, really support clients. The ability to interpret the data into something that’s meaningful and actually contextualize the data. Great agencies are doing that for their clients and really kind of defining your value to the client within that ecosystem by doing so.
Ryan: Makes a lot of sense. So, what are the elements that make the strongest brand agency relationships? Agencies don’t wanna have a two year lifeline either. We wanna be partners for 20 years. What are the elements that make those long lasting, trusting, impactful partnerships? What advice do you have for brands to seek the agencies that are ready to partner for the long haul?
John: Building on the previous discussion about what makes great agencies, I think great agencies understand where they can add the most value. They’re not trying to be everything to everyone. Agencies hate it when I talk about specialization because it feels like it’s this limiting thing. But I actually think specialization can be an advantage in that it allows you to scale. In other words, if you’re the best at x, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, clients are going to find you because they’re looking for a level of expertise. If you are an expert in delivering that value for clients, you should be able to charge a premium and clients will be willing to pay it because you understand where you can add the most value.
You talked about trust and that’s an outcome, right? We always say we want to be partners, we don’t want to be vendors. But there’s something that we have to deliver to earn that right. I used to tell my team, when I was running an account group, that our job is to get our clients promoted. Just sit with that for a moment. If your KPI at Coegi was I’m going to get my clients promoted, what does that look like? It looks like, okay, why do they get promoted? They’ve had a high degree of performance in the business. They’re driving growth, they’re innovating, they’ve managed change. If you’re in the mindset of we’ve got to deliver a 10 to 1 ROS, or if you’re in the mindset of, I’ve got to get this person to the next level, you’re going to do everything you can as an agency to understand their world. Let me have a real clear understanding of what your path to performance and growth is and what are the KPIs that you have as an individual and how do I help you hit those?
We’ve got to push the clients. Clients have to let us in and not be protective of the data and the drivers they’re having in their world. I think if you put yourself in that mindset in service of the client to get them to the next level, you are going to succeed and they’re going to succeed. We’ve been working with 3M for 15 years. We’ve been working with Las Vegas tourism for 40 years. We’ve been working with ActiVision for 17 years. These are unheard of relationships and it goes back to where we started, about the value of independent agencies, how they put the best people on the accounts, and how they’re committed 100% to putting stakeholder, which is the client, above everything else. Trust is an outcome of a behavior set. My belief is if you said that’s my KPI, I’m going to get my client promoted, you’re going to have a very long standing relationship.
Ryan: That’s a great KPI for account people in particular. How can I get you promoted is a more succinct way of getting to that. Are there any other thoughts that you’ve had to wrap up the conversation? Anything else that you’d like to say before I let you go?
John: I would just say the idea of understanding who you are as an agency, I think it’s absolutely critical. I think it gives you the ability to make decisions about every aspect of your business. We are very good at helping clients connect with their highest value customers. That’s exactly how Coegi positions itself. It guides every decision you make. It guides the type of investments you make in your organization. It guides the type of people that you hire. It guides the type of clients that you know you can be right for. That notion of freedom, you’re seeing independent agencies make smarter decisions about the partnerships with clients. They know when they’re right for a client and they’re open with the client if they feel like maybe we’re not the right solution for you and that’s okay because they have the freedom to not have to chase everything. When you know the pieces of business that you have the right to win when you’re going into the new business opportunities, because let’s face it, pitching is a lot of work and it’s a lot of time not just on the agency side, but on the client side of the business. The data has just come out that pitches are costing clients up to a million dollars in time. Independent agencies are saying no to the wrong opportunities, saying yes to the right opportunities, and I think the more that that happens, you’re going to see the partnership between clients and agencies just flourish. I’d leave a collective group of clients and agencies that are on this call to say let’s lean into the partnership opportunity, not treat each other as vendors, and really kind of work together to elevate everybody’s business. I think our industry’s going to be in a greater place moving forward.
Ryan: I love it John. Thank you so much for joining us and looking forward to everything that’s to come from our partnership. Thanks again.
John: Yep Ryan, a pleasure. Thank you.