20 Years. An agency systems perspective.

Chris Lever, Founder, Agency DNA

My first UK marcoms role was in 1995 as agency FD of Bernard Hodes, an Omnicom/DAS group company. Obliged to conform to the rigour by which DAS managed its portfolio and deliver rapid improvement in their two key pertinent drivers, profit margin and the working capital ratio, I was aghast at the way DDS, the group imposed agency media booking/billing, job management and accounting system, made getting these metrics a major exercise. A single minded Kiwi Financial Controller who I’d hired to assist me had words I couldn’t even begin to pronounce for a system which offered not only opportunity for one-sided entry, but produced a balance sheet by downloading disparate ledgers and combining them in Excel.


Fast forward 20 years, DDS rebranded as Media Ocean, rebuilt its database, and yet seems it still can’t handle supplier invoices with more than six characters, or allow a major network create a new field to hold the PO references of Google and Facebook, who quite rightly have their own booking systems. If a network with two billion pounds passing through its pay-as-you-go ledgers doesn’t get what it wants, what hope might a smaller agency have? Excel is a strong supplement.

Step back fifteen years and I’m on a team with other senior players from BMB&B, Leo Burnett and  BBH collectively giving up weeks of our lives to work with Maconomy, guiding them on the development of their agency solution on top of what was admittedly a complex, yet robust financial system.

Youthful and optimistic this was heralding a golden age where a Scandinavian vendor understood that agency complexity is a state of mind, we then waited for the release of a system that would look as good as the Power-Point slides suggested, give clear and instant visibility over the inner workings of our agencies, enhance our staff’s lives and make the coffee. Strange I have since felt a strong compulsion to apologise to the many Maconomy users who in those early days found themselves short of utopia. More like Valhalla.

Talking it through afterwards with Morton, the Danish Senior Developer, trying to understand what happened between stating our reasonable requirements and the end product, it seems back in Copenhagen they re-thought our needs, and built as only they knew how. Something got lost in translation.

Undaunted, this was the start of the new millennium and things would only get better.

The thing with Maconomy is you’re buying a big box of tricks, and you need to know what you’re doing, have a very detailed spec, patience and a frothy budget.

A range of separate and colourful workflow systems have been invented to fill the many gaps left by Maconomy, Deltek even brought one themselves, but the reality is Maconomy for many ends up an expensive and under-utilised general ledger and accounting system.  Excel reigns supreme.

In all this time, like a long-life battery powered toy soldier, Rebus, now Paprika has quietly and defiantly marched on to a steady beat. A Cobol-based solution developed almost 30 years ago, it was the go to system for smaller agencies and despite attempts by SAGE, QuickBooks and latterly, Xero, the NZ originated cloud system, in many ways it still is.

Paprika has never made a big show of itself, yet through the passage of time and the reluctance of agencies to change systems, it has built a tidy market share of around 1000 agencies, a handful who are global. Despite being clunky and not so easy to use, it’s seen as a safe bet.   

A major drawback though is it is a one currency database system. What this means is as soon as you open your first offshore office, you need two databases. Imagine you have 20 offices in 14 countries. That’s a lot of databases, and even more Excel.  

Today the large networks still angst over systems, systems like Maconomy were seen as a great leveller. Mid-tier platforms for standardising multiple agencies, before moving upwards onto something that allowed greater flexibility in global client billing and reporting hierarchies, and migration to some form of shared service. Indeed this was my own strategy in deploying it into WCRS, now The Engine Group, following our MBO in 2004.

The problem is upwards moves to say Microsoft Dynamics AX or SAP come with their own monumental challenges, and matching price tags. A litany of issues prevail in the network attempts with these systems.

For SME’s, the great hope is the cloud.  

New agile systems, built from the ground up overcome many of the limitations sitting in systems made in the past. Agencies can implement without major cash outlay, retain flexibility and enjoy inbuilt scalability. Cloud usually means seamless and automatic upgrades, allowing users to benefit from continuous system improvements. Never again be threatened with an unsupported version.  

The better cloud solutions have open API’s, allowing true connectivity with other business tools, CRM, CPM, and BI, fully embracing the notion that whilst they may do more, they also do it better. The really good ones integrate all the features of job management, accounting and resourcing – the benefits of which are staggering.

There is still no single panacea for the world of marcoms business management and reporting intelligence, and in a tight margin and competitive digital world, agencies need to find their own differentiators.

Assessing what is important to agencies, the information needs at all levels, the degree of flexibility and autonomy management wants to allow, requires a matching to increased number of suitable systems of today which can offer exactly that. Even Excel now competes with Google Docs.

Which all means it is a really interesting time for agencies.

Overall in the past 20 years agencies have not demanded more, and have been fearful of change, even at risk of continuously adding overhead to get basic information circulated. Accepting compromise has unfortunately ingrained vendor complacency.

Yet for many of the new breed of agency, client demands, the general increase in the variety, scope and speed required of work, and the associated massive increase in the volume of data, compromise and complacency can no longer be tolerated.

The good news is there is now choice. The cloud has brought options that are fully featured, continuously improving, intuitive, easy to use, cost effective and quick to implement.

Agencies fear making decisions on systems, but change should be embraced. As a famous person once said, “Not to change, is to die.”  

So the future for agency systems is indeed bright and can be whatever colour you choose for your management dashboard.