Sir Martin Sorrell on the broken agency model, and Media.Monks in Canada

Earlier this month, Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital announced the introduction of a single brand name for its fast-growing stable of digital marketing agencies and businesses .

Going forward, the company—which has grown to 6,000 people in 33 countries and is valued at more than $5 billion—will use the name Media.Monks, a very slight twist on MediaMonks which helped launch S4 in 2018. At the time, MediaMonks was a buzzy creative digital production company, launched in the Netherlands but making a name for itself globally. Just months after an acrimonious split with WPP, Sorrell outbid his old advertising holding company for MediaMonks and was back in the game with an ambition to grow quickly and an oft-stated goal of disrupting the old model he helped build.

A few months later, Sorrell added MightyHive, digital media and data specialists with an emphasis on helping marketers take their media in-house. Since then, S4 has made a constant stream of mergers—not “acquisitions,” an important distinction for Sorrell—with agencies and businesses custom-built for the digital age.

In March, S4 brought Canadian digital agency Jam3 into the fold, a shop with a strong reputation for its digitally led consumer experiences very similar to that of MediaMonks. And last month it added Australian Salesforce specialists Destined.

Last week, The Message spoke with Sorrell and two other key Media.Monks executives, Tessa Ohlendorf, managing director for Media.Monks in Canada, and Chris Martin, co-founder of MightyHive and now part of the S4 board, for an in-depth conversation about the new branding, where Media.Monks fits in the Canadian landscape today, and where the industry is going tomorrow.

In this first of a two-part series, we focused mostly on the Media.Monks story in Canada. In part two later this week, the focus will be on Sorrell, as he goes deep on how the model for Media.Monks will deliver what brands need in the digital age, and how the old model is “a busted flush.”

Media.Monks in Canada: The conversation started by talking about Media.Monks in Canada and, naturally, the executives say things are going very well, although Ohlendorf had one interesting stat to back that up: “The voluntary turnover rate is 1% in Canada… with 100 people, we’ve lost one person in the last year,” she said.

S4’s early presence in Canada was mainly about MightyHive. But after opening a MediaMonks Canadian office last year, and with the Jam3 deal in the March, Media.Monks has been expanding its content offering and is working with clients including Tim Hortons, Shopify, the Ontario government, and Mondelez.

Throughout the conversation, all three executives emphasized that Media.Monks is not just about content solutions or media solutions. From day one, it was built to be a holistic operation with creative thinking to deliver content and media solutions powered by data. The word “unitary” gets used a lot.

“When we go to the table with clients, we’re talking about things the way clients want to be talked to, which is big picture, what’s best for the business,” said Ohlendorf. They don’t want to talk about programmatic solutions on their own or content solutions on their own, so Media.Monks talks about it all at once.

“The unitary structure means we have teams that are combined—so you have data scientists, you have content folks, you have media strategy teams. They’re working on client business together,” she said.

Media.Monks is also comfortable working in a world that is increasingly project-based, and where marketers have become AOR averse.

“Clients are looking for a la carte solutions,” she said. “We’re seeing this across the world, but I’ll speak specifically to Canada. Clients are not necessarily always looking for a partner they can sign with for everything for a three-year engagement. A lot of clients are working with different partners, and they want partners to be able to dial in and out, and and be a good partner to other partners that they’re working with.”

On bringing Jam3 onto the team: Both Jam3 and MediaMonks (the original) are examples of what is succeeding in a changing industry, said Sorrell. “There are other people in the industry who have similar reputations to MediaMonks and Jam3, a group of them that are highly creative, very strong creative production companies, which have morphed more and more from dealing through agencies, to dealing direct with clients and become fully fledged agencies. Jam3 and Media Monks are two of the best examples of that.”

What makes Canada unique? “I have a Canada-first policy in general, where the market itself is not part of North America, it is a market to be tapped,” said Martin. “And we think that the brands in Canada that are looking to expand globally need a different type of global partner, because Canada-first is not necessarily the policy of many of the marketing services partners that are out on the market today.

“Secondly, what makes Canada different, I think, is the immigration policies and talent available in the local markets. I quite often rely on Tessa and Jam3 to be able to service our global accounts—so, heavy investment there from a people perspective.”

Why change the name? The new brand is not about restructuring, but a new brand for an existing operation and structure that was put in place in 2018. “We started three years ago with one of the fundamental principles being a unitary brand. And we’ve implemented it,” said Sorrell. Being one company means more cooperation and less competition between the businesses that make up S4. “Clients were surprised that a) we implemented the unitary structure—because a lot of people talk about it inside the industry without doing it—and b) that we’ve done it so quickly.”

The singular name for the entire company is also illustrative of the fact Media.Monks is not structured like a typical holding company or advertising network, added Martin. “Tessa has the ability to make a call to any part of the world, to any expertise that’s available, that’s relevant to her market. I even have a founder from one of the companies that’s joined us, leaving another region and coming to Canada to potentially seed that marketplace with their capability set.”

A MightyHive specialty was in-housing. Are you seeing a spike in interest as privacy concerns rise and first party data becomes more important? “[W]e are seeing that there’s still a need there. We’re also seeing that Canadian marketers are quite far down that path in some cases, and other cases, not,” said Ohlendorf.

“But I think what we’re going to be seeing more of is ‘What’s next?’ After in-housing of programmatic and search and things that are easier to do with martech being more readily available than it was five years ago, in Canada anyway, what’s the next thing?

“One of the things that we’re really excited about is how do we apply what we’re already doing to new things like the digitization of TV, for example. Television is in a really exciting stage of transformation into digital and we are going in that direction,” she said.

“What that means for Canadian marketers is they’ve got an in-house team, are they going to start looking at linear TV, are we going to be supporting them in that direction? I can say that we’ll be talking a lot more about that in the coming year.”

What does that mean for media agencies? “The problem with in-housing for the established agencies and the holding companies, is they think it does them out of a job,” said Sorrell. “We’re more interested in doing whatever is necessary in the clients’ interests than our own interests.

Sorrell used the question to return to his argument that the big holding company model is broken with the different agency brands competing for space and business. “The media agencies are hiring creative people… And nobody at the centre of the holding company says ‘You can’t do that.’ So, what was originally created to separate creative and media is now becoming blurred and everybody is trying to compete with one another.”

“I think in a funny way the wheel has come full circle and you’ll see more integration… but to put the toothpaste back into the tube in the holding company is getting very difficult.

“If you were to put a media agency at one of the holding companies together with a so-called creative agency—whether digital or analogue by nature, or a mixture of the two—the big question is who’s going to run it? And that’s where you would run into a lot of friction.”

David Brown