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Faris Yakob: Marketing and comms has become ‘a bun fight’

The marketing guru and co-founder of nomadic creative consultancy Genius Steals talks to Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson about work on the road, the dissolution of agency disciplines and the 'ridiculous power' of Facebook

Five years ago, Faris Yakob, a marketing industry veteran from across the widest agency spectrum, packed his bags and set off on the road with his now-wife Rosie.

Having ticked off a list of legacy networks including OMD, McCann and also the pioneering independent Naked Communications,  Yakob and Rosie decided to found a new type of business. One that would allow them to travel all over the world – consulting for agencies, brands and start-ups. One without a permanent office base.

Now as their consultancy Genius Steals looks set to put the pair on the road for another year, Yakob sits down with Mumbrella to discuss the nomadic lifestyle and marketing’s most pressing concerns today.

You’ve been on the road pursuing a ‘Nomadic working lifestyle’ for five years now. Are you finding it’s still a sustainable business? And are you planning to keep going?

“It feels a shame to abandon it so soon. Originally it was going to be six months. And then it became five years. Now it seems harder to stop than it does to continue. So we’ll continue for the time being at least.

“[Where we go] depends on clients. We mostly have clients in London and the US. Part of the business model is: ‘make money where it’s worth more and spend it where it goes further’. That’s how we manage the modulation of our lifestyle. We are going back to America for a bit; then Serbia and then we’re going to India in April. It all depends on clients and where they want us.

“Business-wise we have been lucky; it basically works by people emailing us, and sometimes those become jobs. As long as people keep emailing us, it will remain a viable and sustainable entity. If not, then we will need to reconsider our inbound marketing strategy.”

Having worked across so many different markets, what are the trends – and client problems – you’ve seen across the whole business?

“There are three things we’ve been having a lot of conversations around. The first is customer experience: companies and agencies trying to work out whether they do it or not; and what it might be. On the other side, is digital transformation.

“A third of our business comes from agencies who are experiencing what I call ‘the great blur’. Lots of lines have become blurred and in agencies, lots of them are attempting to redefine themselves as creative partners to business problems. Because there is this increasing pressure on the non-media side of budgets, – everyone wants to do social and a bit of content – all the creative agencies have started to blur into each other. There is a lot of bun-fighting occurring; everyone is all up in everyone else’s grill. It’s quite entertaining for us.

“There is still quite a strong linearity with hiring processes in creative agencies – particularly in the US. If you work on a car brand in a creative agency, chances are you’ll do that for the rest of your career. That depth of knowledge is great, but because of this great blur, breadth is becoming more important.”

How set in their ways are agencies? Are they adapting to the new reality or is it all about legacy?

“Well legacy comes with great client relationships, a depth of expertise, but also massive rents on super high skyscrapers in expensive cities. There is still an orthodoxy I would say that comes from pre-collaborative workflow and digital systems. But we work with some that have made very radical steps towards changing and integrating their strategy products. A lot are making steps, but there’s a great deal of variance across networks. Across the big networks, there doesn’t seem to be much consistency. It’s hard to do that; you can have a centralised strategy and chief creative officer, but different markets take longer to catch up.”

So do you believe that better collaboration in the form of ‘horizontality’ – as it’s been coined by WPP – is ultimately better for agencies?

“I fundamentally believe in fruitful collaboration; the one-man problems have been solved and we’re not going to get anything interesting done without a bunch of us coming together. People just come up with the same things again and again: that’s the way your brain works.

“From a business perspective, there’s a lot of appeal around a horizontal team structure, rather than a single set of account managers. To align their business models and not be constantly fighting makes a lot of sense. A lot of the M&A activity that is occurring because of consolidation of agencies (because there are fewer brands out there and less money) is very culturally very challenging for people. Culture is important and I know people get very frustrated with [M&As]. But consolidation is inevitable: if P&G and Unilever are halving their budgets, dozens of agencies across the world will cease to exist if they only serve those clients.

“You can feel the pressure. On one side you have people like Accenture absorbing The Monkeys {in Australia}; those who have a single P&L and there’s integration across the company. That’s the antithesis of how people like Sorrell have managed their agency brands up until now. And now they’re getting smashed together.”

Yakob speaking at Mumbrella’c Comms Com last year

Speaking of Accenture, have the recent headlines speculating about the consultancies coming for – or going in to demolish – agencies something to take seriously?

“To be honest there have been articles from the 1980s saying the consultants are coming. It’s been a source of concern for a long time. In the market of advisory services, yes we will always compete. But when Deloitte starts pitching against DDB then we will know a whole new day has come. That hasn’t quite happened yet. Instead what’s happening is that the consultancies are trying to reshape the market in their own image. They’re trying to do ‘experience design’, whatever that is, and trying to take over a new part of the market, rather than competing in an existing one.

“I don’t know if it’s arrogance or hubris to say you can’t house creative people inside a big organisation. But at the same time, people I know who worked at the cool, indie design shops that Accenture has been buying, most of them have left. Not immediately, but eventually. I’m not saying they strangle a culture any less than holding companies, but they take away your ‘fun budgets’. And people who work for indie agencies have made that choice for a reason – because it culturally suits you, because there are ‘fun budgets’. As soon as you get acquired, all those reasons dissapear.”

You spoke last year and you wrote about how creativity is moving into the space once occupied by PR – or earned media. Were you making a point that creative agencies are losing touch with their original offering?

“I think I was trying to make a bigger point about how the things that inform the cultural discourse have risen to the top of a cacophony and penetrated culture. You can make headlines and earn media if you’re willing to do something big and outrageous enough early in the day. It also works the other way though: look at the Under Armour CEO who said Trump made a favourable business environment. He was forced to publish an apology because he could not build a premium lifestyle brand with that view. Everything you say is communicative: even down to paying taxes makes a statement.”

Moving on, were you surprised by Facebook’s recent algorithm change? Is it now crunch time for brands and publishers who were dependent on its organic reach?

“There’s going to be a lot of soul-searching, but to be honest this has been the state of play for years now. Organic reach was less than three per cent from 2014 onwards right? If you’ve been posting to Facebook and not paying for it, nobody has been really seeing it for quite a long time. There’s no reason to be posting to Facebook daily now. I think people will keep boosting and making Facebook lots of money. It’s dominance in mobile is huge; 90 per cent of people now access it through their mobile app. That’s what’s hard to compete with; it’s ridiculously powerful in terms of reach and targeting.”

In addition, both Facebook and the other tech giants appear pretty unharmed by the swathes of bad press directed at them. Are they untouchable?

“I would say they have had some special treatment [in public opinion] for things in the way old monopolies would not have. But when you remember these brands as the scrappy upstarts they were, then you feel some affinity with them.

“Like Google for me was once pushing against the boring machines of IBM and Microsoft. It felt very exciting and I felt involved in that excitement at the beginning. But when you hit the global scale, these upstarts become very ‘company-like’; the things you want to believe about them become subsided by money. What influences their behaviour is money. But what they’re doing now is buying subsidiaries: Instagram and What’sApp for example. So they’re crushing competition. It how’s they become monopolies while pretending to be platforms and bastions of free speech.

“The fact they do all this without paying any taxes though is what pisses a lot of people off. Or it annoys me. Socially progressive but fiscally conservative, like a lot of Americans claim to be. The old monopoly becomes calcified and a new tech players comes and changes the game: and there’s no reason this won’t happen again? And now Amazon is probably going to come and kick them all in the ass.”

Looking forward into 2018, are you planning on making a return to Asia-Pacific? Is there anything in this region’s marketing field that would be a major pull factor?

“We were in Asia when we first started and we went to a lot of countries in that part of the world. I was in Myanmar a couple of years ago; a country that hadn’t had advertising before and that was suddenly getting Coca-Cola. It was very interesting to see how it appears as a brand. Asia is at different points of evolution. Fifteen years ago, telecom brands were looking at Japan as being distinctly ahead. And how these other markets are moving along at different paces is super interesting.”

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