Brands should engage more with the start-up community

Last year, I wrote about how the agency-advertiser model is changing, and how advertisers might need tore-evaluate their commercial approach to take that into account. However, most commentary I’ve seen to date has been from a media perspective. A trip to the Hoxton Mix at London’s Sillicone Roundabout, one of several incubators for digital start-ups, suggests and interesting model for how creative agencies could also evolve.


A common complaint of digital marketers working for big brands is that some of the more established through-the-line creative agencies don’t ‘get digital’. More savvy marketers can find they know a lot more than the agency staff they are engaging with. Often, the internal ‘digital’ complaint is that these agencies, fantastic at generating the creative big idea, managing the client relationship and contracts at a senior level and, when briefed to produce digital work, outsource it to partners, adding a significant overhead.

Digital media may have matured but, with a few exceptions, the best digital creative and production talent often chooses not to migrate to certain of the larger creative agencies, preferring to start their own company or to work freelance.

A model initially pioneered by a FTSE 100 leading global advertiser and The Hoxton Mix gives advertisers access to this talent while still allowing them to retain a holistic approach to their communications. Matt Evans, director at The Hoxton Mix, describes the advantage of co-working spaces like his as being to “actively encourage small agencies to pitch together for larger contracts. The benefits are clear: deep specialist knowledge across a variety of cutting-edge capabilities becomes available, together with flexible and lower cost rates”.

The model works for advertisers by creating a framework agency with their main communications agency still owning the ‘big idea’ and able to produce the more traditional media, such as TV or press and most of their digital creative. However, the varied start-up talent at The Hoxton Mix is brought in for test and learn, innovation, new technology or post-production output when required. To save a client from dealing with multiple points of contact, an account manager at The Hoxton Mix manages the relationship with the start-ups.

Another large international brand has recently signed up to the model, showing that, with the right internal partnerships with procurement teams and other communication colleagues, this is a feasible proposition. It is early days for this model, and it is only illustrative of its potential as there are a number of variants with which a brand could experiment.

Agencies have also started to develop models aimed at providing similar outcomes for clients.

A few years ago, Wieden+Kennedy was one of the first to provide co-working space at its US premises. The benefits included helping to upskill agency staff with tech knowledge and enhancing agency culture, as well as providing access to brands (and free office space) to the start-ups.

Many incubators similar to The Hoxton Mix do, of course, exist around the globe. I recently visited one in New York’s equivalent to Silicon Roundabout – Silicon Alley. Indeed, the creative incubator model already had a precedent in the UK in the form of Cockpit Arts, a well-established creative-business incubator in London offering affordable creative workspace, an on-site team and support services for craftspeople in the UK.

From a creative advertising perspective, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that, if a few more large advertisers adopt the model developed by these brands and The Hoxton Mix, it could reach a critical mass and enhance even more the vibrancy and credibility of the growing tech community. Digital staff often see themselves working as internal change agents. It would be fantastic to see more larger brands giving their support to the start-up scene in London by innovating not only with their media but with creative agency models, thereby helping to maintain and develop the UK’s standing as one of the world’s most exciting and vibrant digital and creative markets. The Government often talks about the ability of small businesses to contribute to economic growth, and this could only benefit the UK’s digital economy too.

Alex Tait is chairman of ISBA Digital, Data & Direct Action Group