Advertising agencies need to be agile to survive

Odette van der Haar

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: One of South Africa’s leading advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson (JWT) has appointed Odette van der Haar as CEO, effective July. Van der Haar has led the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) for the industry for the past decade. This is one of the most significant senior appointments in the industry recently.

After the consolidation of massive advertising networks around the globe in the past decade, now advertising agencies face being swallowed up by management consultancies that can provide the data and real time trend forecasting that marketer’s want, the industry is in crisis and needs to be far more agile than it has been. Creativity is under siege from number crunchers and the breaking up of these global behemoths is being predicted.

Van der Haar is looking forward to the “strategic business of reimagining the future of clients’ brands to drive business solutions that deliver on long term impact”.

“I’ve been talking a lot about the changed landscape, how the industry is evolving and transforming and how agile agencies need to be to survive this dynamic era. At JWT, I have the opportunity to be part of this new dynamic landscape from in the field and within an organisation that has already begun transforming to meet market demands,” she says.


Van der Haar took over as ACA CEO in 2007, coming from Sentech, where she was in charge of advertising, events and sponsorship. At the ACA, she expanded its membership by 40 per cent, built the APEX Awards into the most sought-after marketing communications award for brands; raised 72 bursaries for the AAA School of Advertising; and fought for the protection of intellectual capital in the pitch process.

“I am most proud of the fact that I was able to make a tangible and lasting contribution to the profession I am so deeply in love with, by driving transformation and self-regulation, raising bursaries for deserving young talent, promoting the value of advertising and communications to business success and putting in place a Code of Conduct for tenders and pitches to promote healthy competition, equal opportunity, risk mitigation and protection of agencies’ intellectual property during pitches.”

JWT was launched in 1864 and in South Africa in 1928. In the Middle East and Africa, it is one of the leading agency networks (which include J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, Mirum and Colloquial), with 27 offices in 24 markets.

Says Van der Haar on her appointment to JWT: “Who wouldn’t want to join an agency with the mentality of a billion-dollar start-up; across-the-board experience to deliver through glocal platforms; innovative DNA and a courageous culture.”

Van der Haar is currently completing a degree in marketing communications, with a specialisation in digital marketing. Her first priority of business when taking up the reigns at JWT on 1 July, is getting to know all the agency stakeholders, starting with staff and clients.

“I believe good leaders serve. In ‘serving’ the talent they partner, they grow them and with that they grow the business. When you serve, you listen… The purpose of having a vision, a mission, a goal, is to positively impact the development of your organisation (‘serve’ and ‘add value’), and that of your clients’ businesses and brands.”

She loves the camaraderie of the advertising industry, saying it is the “best industry in the world” and hopes to keep making an impact. “I will always be a change agent, someone who drives change, embraces change and rises to the challenge that change brings. I hope to contribute to the success of JWT, its talent and its clients in a most meaningful way that will be referenced as best practice for the business.”


What motivates her in the industry includes the continued drivers of current innovation: the internet and social media. And while some may claim that “advertising is dead”, she says “only bad advertising is dead”.

Advertising is very much alive, and these are the key trends that excite her:

Brand over product: Advertising has become more focused on the brand than the product.

Connect authentically or don’t connect at all: relevance, relevance, relevance. We live in a social media and consumer-run world where brands are welcome to drop by, but only if they ditch the sales pitch and behave like regular people. Consumers want brands to be accessible and accommodating especially when they have a problem and the rest of the time, consumers just want brands to be cool and not hard sell to win over their audience.

Agents for social change: Whilst advertising influences consumer behaviour, it also has the power to shape our aspirations and reinforce values. Social media also prompts companies to move away from delivering monologues to engaging in conversations and in so doing, transforming relationships between brands and consumers, which creates a more human element for brands as they focus on creating conversations about shared values. This values-based advertising is needed and it is very good for profit and gets people talking, but most importantly, generating word-of-mouth.

Personalised advertising: Shared experiences definitely shape consumer perceptions of products. Opinions and perceptions of products and the enjoyment and value consumers get from it doesn’t just come from personal contact with it. How products are perceived is influenced by what consumers know and feel about a brand.

Social validation and influencer marketing: The psychology behind this trend is one of the most fascinating areas affecting marketing at the moment, given the performance on reach and targeting, digital has added to campaign effectiveness. And one of the intriguing trends to rise out of that is, in our era of post-fake-news, that people are turning to the internet in even greater numbers to form opinions, by finding out the raw, uncut, real-life views of others in real time, within their same value set/interest group/experience/community/peer tier etc. Of course, the act of seeking out opinions is not new! It’s the speed, and arguably, the depth and breadth of opinions to be minded, that is new. I say arguably, because one of the main criticisms of opinion forming in the digital era is the echo chamber an online platform’s algorithms can create. Never a dull moment in this space.

Omni-channel marketing: Historically, buying decisions were made in-store when products were tangibly evaluated though to physical touch. Online, e-tailing has changed that dramatically. Purchases that used to be a one-stop buy are now decided on well ahead of time after consumers have first interacted with businesses in a variety of ways as a result of omni-channel marketing that provides a seamless purchasing experience across as many channels as possible.

“Advertisers are having to navigate treacherous waters in an attempt to win over consumers’ attention and wallets amidst a very dynamic technologically-driven landscape and against the backlash of advertising clutter. For the most part however, advertising – or shall I say, creative and innovative advertising – is still winning!”


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