The great rebuild, retold: Agency-as-infrastructure and telling a new story

Sam Fenton-Elstone, CEO and Co-Founder of Anything is Possible on why the future hasn’t changed; it’s just going to get here faster then expected.

Sam Fenton-Elstone, Anything is Possible

Partner & CEO


Apologies for telling you something you’ve already heard once or twice lately, but it bears repeating. When you’re presenting a big story, it’s important to reset the scenery once in a while.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the social upheavals still following in its wake, with expectations of waves of lockdown and uprising expected to come, have placed unprecedented pressure on the key institutions that keep the world running.

Large, small, medium-sized businesses. Local, national and global governments. Education institutions, third-sector charities, civic bodies. All of them have been rocked by the events of 2020. Some have discovered new purpose from realising how important they are to our everyday life. Some have stepped up almost out of nowhere and, quite simply, smashed it. We’ll get to those in a minute.

But a lot are up against it. The simple, predictable continuities many relied on to make things work failed to arrive in 2020. Any business or organisation revenue-reliant on driving people to a physical space, which is a lot, have suffered.

But while the situation is unexpected and unprecedented, a genuine black swan surprise, the likes of which we thought the world couldn’t make any more, it has tended to exacerbate existing trends more than rewrite reality wholesale.

The future hasn’t changed. It’s just going to get here faster than expected.

Sam Fenton-Elstone

Think of the cinema industry. A combination of streaming competition and high running costs already had them fighting to survive. The closure has been tenuously supported by government assistance, and although the movie theatres could expect to bounce back with the long-anticipated reopening rush, signs from the world ahead suggest things won’t be that straightforward.

Having unlocked in May, cinemas in Hong Kong are already closing again as infections start to creep back up. The audience predictability the industry needs can’t be guaranteed, so the permanent cinema closures many had predicted for the next decade look to become reality ahead of schedule.

The future hasn’t changed. It’s just going to get here faster than expected.

So, while iconic brands like Odeon and Curzon may have a difficult situation approaching, others are looking at the moment to embed themselves as the essential providers of the new reality.

Beyond the obvious lockdown pillars and winners like Amazon, Netflix and Zoom, less visible brands like Novovax (valued at $4.1 billion today, up from £93 million in January), Alok (mask manufacturers - try going to the supermarket without using their products) and Fastly (the cloud provider behind Shopify) have become the invisible institutions supporting the world economy.

Agencies as infrastructure: Beyond storytelling

If these brands are vital new infrastructure, keeping food supplies flowing to your door and accelerating medical research, they are becoming the equivalent of what the railways were to the 19th century.

Then what are agencies? Agencies have a vital function communicating the significance of this shift and, as the connective tissue between brand and audience, protecting the public trust. Agencies can help brands who didn’t plan to become vital supply lines get familiar with Spider-Man’s famous catchphrase: with great power comes great responsibility.

As many people who overdid the lockdown snacks can understand, when you rapidly expand, you need to tread more carefully. That’s because entire ecosystems depend on you, and you on them. Getting that big makes you public property, whether that’s official or not.

The more secure and established digital monoliths like Alphabet get this; they can see the benefits for both their brand and their bottom line at once, by tying innovation to social value. See YouTube’s proactive pandemic policing of fake news videos, and Google’s COVID-19 Ad Credits for SMEs.

The new infrastructure also belongs in large part not just to consumers, but to SME businesses, social institutions, pressure groups and charity organisations. None of these are going anywhere. They are more vital than ever and can expect to expand in profile as more people come to engage and support them. At the same time their role is evolving too, as care needs ramp up and community links create a space for local learning, organising and distribution hubs.

All these organisations need agency support to tell this complex story. Being that node of exchange and communication up and down the tree means agencies must mediate demands from all sides, keeping everybody honest.

Agencies need to be able to represent the voice of every stakeholder in this delicate balancing act of overlapping priorities, presenting the public interest and advising brands big and small on the positive social impacts post-coronavirus customers expect to see from the brands they choose to support with their precious time, money and attention.

Media agencies need to become technical solution agencies. We need to become suppliers of vital infrastructure, and make the future come to us.

Sam Fenton-Elstone

Dynamic solutions to dynamic problems

This is a lot of responsibility to put on any agency, no matter how up for it they are. Can you really accomplish all that with a clever media campaign?

That’s why agencies need to change too. Media agencies need to become technical solution agencies. We need to become suppliers of vital infrastructure, and make the future come to us.

At Anything is Possible, shoulder-to-shoulder with our dreamy creatives and wily media planners, we invest in colleagues with development and coding backgrounds. They bring different skills and invaluable perspectives to what we do. During lockdown we have bucked the trends and grown the agency by 30%, with most of those new recruits going straight into our Insight & Automation team.

Our clients’ challenges are increasingly best dealt with by bespoke technical innovations and improvements. Writing scripts and building bots that work inside their systems and operate their social channels. That monitor, balance and optimise their media bidding and ad placement strategies. Our insight and automation team are focused on building unique, innovative tech that anticipates and responds to the specific problems and opportunities they face. They bring an understanding that true value comes from looking again at what is in front of you and doing something different with it.

What does that mean practically? Part of the shift in mindset that understands that a good media agency has to be a good tech company too is the realisation that today’s bespoke client solution is the skeleton of tomorrow’s modular SaaS product. Developing the vision to see it and the will to push it through to reality.

It means rolling in-project innovations forward, to spread the benefit of that work to wider audiences so we can solve their unique problems. It means strategies that add value, cut costs and deploy quick solutions to dynamic problems at the critical point of need.

Because we all have rather a lot of critical points of need at the moment. It’s not over yet. When it comes to pivoting agencies into the key infrastructure of the new world, we’re just getting started.

Guest Author

Sam Fenton-Elstone, Anything is Possible

Partner & CEO,


Sam is Partner and CEO of Anything is Possible. He has held board roles at VCCP Media and iCrossing before joining aip to change things for the better. A former winner of Media Week’s Rising star award, Sam has worked across many clients leading performance marketing and media strategies for the likes of Apple, EDF, The Economist, News UK, LEGO and L’Oreal.

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