The Age of Agency: Why brands need you more than you need them


“Don’t buy this jacket.” And then all the reasons why you shouldn’t. That was the full page ad in the November 25, 2011 issue of The New York Times. On Black Friday no less. Patagonia proved that they stood for something more than really cool, really comfy outerwear.

It’s just one example of the nineties and noughties rise of brands that stood for – and against – things. For rights, for progress and against discrimination.

Think the United Colours of Benetton, collaborating with photographer Oliviero Toscani to produce ads featuring multiracial lovers, child soldiers and dying AIDS patients. Or Warby Parker making a pledge to “give one” when you “buy one” – turning the selfish act of buying a new pair of glasses into a selfless act of giving vision to someone less fortunate.

It’s a trend that still resonates today.

But it would seem the next era in brand narratives has its own theme – agency – and I don’t mean the one I work for with the beer and the table tennis. I’m talking about the kind that puts you in control. Of your actions. Your path in life. Your destiny.

Agency (the verb) is multifaceted. It’s a concept defined by choice and taking control of your own narrative. It’s a sense of freedom. It’s free will.

And agency is the reason we’ve seen the rise of a host of direct-to-consumer brands appealing to a world of interests and passion points, from personal hygiene to bespoke pharmaceuticals.

In this new paradigm, you – the empowered, conscious and cognitive consumer – are the Net Promoter. Your actions matter, and they determine the success of the brand, not the other way round. In this new world, brands need you.

It’s an idea that others have considered. In 2017, BBH Head of Strategy and Innovation Shai Idelson wrote about the ‘complete this sentence’ trend in advertising and communications that leads towards things starting to sound the same. His three-step guide to making a modern ad goes:

“Step 1: Take a verb

Step 2: Add “Your”

Step 3: Finish it off with a word that has something to do with what you’re selling.”

For example – Find Your More.

By doing this, brands appear to be empowering people and sparking agency in others. And Idelson sees a blind following of the ‘be yourself’ trend as moving away from what advertising has traditionally done.

But why are we moving that way?

To me, at least, the shift makes sense. In advertising, we seem to be ever inching higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Designed by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, it’s sketched out as a pyramid.

Things like food, shelter and sleep are at the bottom, and less tangible desires like ‘self actualisation’ and ‘transcendence’ sit at the top. In layman’s terms, it’s saying that our most basic needs must be met before we’re able (or motivated) to go higher.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, taken from

But we the privileged are no longer scrapping for survival. We’ve achieved love thanks to Tinder and Uber Eats and we’ve secured esteem as evidenced by the brands of the noughties. And the global derailment of the Corona virus is a reminder about how quickly this can all be undone.

So, now we’ve reached the top of the pyramid – ‘self actualisation’ – which is all about the growth of an individual toward fulfilment of the highest needs, and for meaning in life. You might call this the ‘best life’ box, that mental mode we aspire to where we get to epiphanise ourselves into a nirvana of self-made self-worth.

Is this really a role for brands to play?

It seems to me that agency (the verb) is where most brands are heading. Brand as an enabler. A brand model that can be broken down into a simple formula:

  • Here’s a belief about the world
  • Here are some tools and some ideas you can espouse
  • Oh, and here is some Goop that you use to slap on when you reach that plateau of self-worth


Dove, Campaign for Real Beauty, 2004

A good example of this evolution is in the world of beauty. Consider the groundbreaking 2004 work contained within Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ – a campaign defined by its empowering message and ambition to build confidence in women no matter their body or mindset.

Before then, Dove used the sorts of models you’d expect in a beauty product ad. But 2004 saw the brand promote a new idea of beauty – real women with real bodies. It saw Dove’s profits rise, and inspired the brand to continue with a series of purpose-driven campaigns that highlighted issues around body insecurity.

Compare that to the 2020 Sephora campaign titled ‘The Unlimited Power of Beauty’ – which talks to putting the power of make-up into the responsible hands of the user to accompany them through life’s ups and downs.

“Beauty is changing. It is no longer just on catwalks or in magazines but in our friends’ selfies or the latest uploads from influencers. Our smartphone screen has become our bathroom mirror,” the French agency BETC wrote in their campaign launch presser.

“Its meaning is also evolving – in culture, entertainment and social media, people are challenging the status quo, giving their own interpretation of what it means to be beautiful.”

It’s a subtle shift, sure, but the evolution is pretty clearly there. The former is an expose on body image and the harm it can cause, while the latter is a heartfelt story about self-worth being a mindset and choice you control.

And this is happening all over. Brands are doing more than reflecting beliefs. They are putting the power in our hands. I believe brands see agency as a force for good. Perhaps they believe it’s what people want, after all the reports and data on millennials tells us everyone is searching for their purpose.

As an agency (the noun) guy, I like it. It feels good, it’s empowering, it’s branding with intent. But up can’t be the only way. My genuine worry is where to next? If we’re in the top box – Self Actualisation – where do we go from here?

Perhaps the next wave will be full of ‘repair’ brands – those that pick up the pieces for consumers who have failed to reach the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy. As an example of this, consider brands that are emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic: Judy, which sells disaster kits; or hims, helping you deal with your genetic and sexual shortcomings as a man.

Or perhaps the next wave means working more closely with ‘end-ups’ – companies and businesses that operate at the opposite end of the business cycle to start-ups.

John Maeda, the man who put the term ‘end-ups’ in the zeitgeist, argues that these are the brands that ultimately end up facilitating the innovation of startups for the greater benefit of society.

“Don’t forget that for all the bravado of the hoodie-wearing startup crowd, the majority of them wouldn’t hesitate to be acquired by an end-up. It’s easy to forget that an end-up is a company that has earned its reputation for being a reliable source of value,” he says.

“When you’re a teenager, it’s all too easy to dismiss a company that’s as old as a mum or dad. But it’s helpful to remind ourselves that being a ‘grown-up’ company is not a bad thing at all. After all, who wants to go back to when they were teenagers?”

A good example here is Tesla (innovator) and Ford (mass producer). Both benefit from the push and pull of technological creativity, but one is ultimately fragile and the other deep and resource-rich. The same applies to everything from Fintech to global energy businesses.

Perhaps by the time a business idea gets to an end-up, we will once again be talking about the function and benefits of these services and products, not their aspirational self actual promises.

– Andrew Reeves

Alone, Together: The Royals’ response to the coronavirus crisis

COVID-19 has changed us. So, as The Royals settled into isolation, we set a challenge. Creatively respond to the statement ‘coronavirus is like…’. Here’s what we came up with.


– Ken Sum

This fetish of the apocalypse I’ve been carrying for years

Has started feeling real enough to peel away my skin

See, I went six months without remembering any of my dreams

And now they’re all about the things that used to bore me

Sometimes it seems as if the cracks in the walls are getting bigger

Sometimes it’s easier to keep laughing at the spaces in between

Maybe I’ll start digging. Maybe we should all start digging

Fuck, if hell is other people I’d rather have you there with me

– Dan Michael Jones

It’s been a wild 24 months in the world of data. In early 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke and millions of people realised organisations had access to a wealth of information about them. This led to the EU enforcing GDPR legislation, which regulated the need to ask for permission to collect data and to report data security breaches. And this led to a movement towards data protectionadblockers, private browsers and VPNs to prevent companies accessing their data.

Now, the world is in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The healthcare systems of Italy, Spain, USA and Iran are being overwhelmed. But some countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have managed to ‘flatten the curve’. How have they managed this? By accessing the personal data of millions of people.
Each of these countries was able to flatten the curve by tracking and tracing people’s movements via phone GPS, apps, security camera footage, even credit card records and matching them against health and travel records. The constant surveillance ensured those who contacted COVID-19 remained in quarantine and those who had interacted with them were notified early so they could self-isolate. Countries wanting to emulate Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan’s success are realising they will need to breach individual privacy for the sake of social security.

My take on all this is that once the pandemic passes we will come to accept some loss in data privacy (that we had only just won 24 months ago) for the greater good; and governments and organisations that have been granted access to our personal data will be reluctant to give it up.

– Dr Paul Vella


– Luke Danzig

Coronavirus is a reminder that we are all connected. It’s pretty confronting being in lockdown. I miss my friends, family, colleagues, the daily commute, having somewhere to rush to, a sense of purpose. I miss feeling connected to my fellow humans. The iso blues are real, so I’ve been meditatinga lot.

Mostly when I’m meditating I try to focus on my breathnoticing without judgement when thoughts arise. This morning I was feeling particularly lonely, and the thought that kept coming up was just how quickly Coronavirus has spread.

I’m picturing those weird tree graphs that are being circulated online, illustrating how one person with corona can quickly and unwittingly share the horrible virus to thousands, its grotty tentacles reaching out insidiously. Ironically, isolation is a powerful reminder of how connected we all are.

My mind wanders on… drifting on this idea that there actually is no separation. When you breathe out, a moment later another person will be breathing in an atom that is still warm from your lungs. It’s kind of gross, but I like this thought – that on a cellular level, we are constantly recycling each other’s stuff. The air we breathe holds us together.

The corona tree graph pops back into view. I imagine all the nice things that we share without thinking about it. Laughter, kindness, emotional warmth, even lovethe positive energy of these things is deeply felt. When you share your good vibes with me, you make me happy and I share that happiness with others.  

Love spreads like a virus. Our goodness, our love reaches thousands too… now that’s a thought that just might carry me through these crazy times!

– Belinda Cecchini

Coronavirus is a collective dropping of the guard. This story is a mash-up of actual quotes and snippets from what has been posted by others in my social feed:

It’s okay if you are not creating right now. It’s okay just to survive for a bit. No shits given. Come to grips with three existential truths and meditate HARD. Went a little mad today after realising I hadn’t touched another human being for two weeks. Counting down the days til we’re reunited. Went for a very long walk. A socially distanced bushwalk. Comfort in ritual. My quarantine shadow. It is wonderful and undoing in equal quantities. Neighbours dropped off some saffron milk cap mushrooms. Good friends are the best antidote. Tonight, many of us were meant to be enjoying opening night of La Traviata at Handa outdoor opera on Sydney Harbour. Mum is spending all her time hiding in the bathroom watching TikTok videos on repeat. Everyone knows she has a stash of uppers hidden somewhere in the house. Just add vodka. It’s a trap. Sunday morning. I don’t know how to do this. But then I was sent these pictures from a Country Women’s Association shop in Hobart and it rather warmed my cockles.

– Dave Rood


Coronavirus is house arrest for climate crime.

– Anthea Wright

I don’t know if I have 250 words in me for this, but it’s sure making me think about building a tiny house and GTFO of the city.

– Kitty Turpin


 – Nick Cummins

Coronavirus is good conspiracy theory fodder. In these uncertain times, it’s hard to know who or what to believe. The only certainty is that people will jump to conclusions and spread wild conspiracy theories and fear. Here’s a list of the best and worst conspiracy theories doing the rounds:

  • The coronavirus is part of an American plot to ruin the Chinese economy.
  • The coronavirus is part of a Chinese plot to ruin America’s economy.
  • Disney+ released COVID-19 just in time for its launch.
  • COVID-19 arrived from space.
  • The UK government is baking a giant lasagne.
  • The French government is making a ginormous garlic bread.
  • Russian officials released lions to patrol the streets in an effort to enforce social isolation.
  • Cocaine cures COVID-19.
  • Drinking cow urine protects against COVID-19.
  • Greta Thunberg caused COVID-19 to help with climate change.
  • China has a vaccine that they will:
  1. Sell to the rest of the world.
  2. Give to the rest of the world for free as a sign of power.
  • COVID-19 is 5G attacking our brains.

Stay tuned and question everything. 

– Lewis Farrar



– Ken Sum

Coronavirus is a kick in the gut. A lot of conversations I’m having with friends – virtually, because I haven’t seen any of them for more than two weeks – revolve around what this fucked-up virus is teaching us. And what it’s teaching us is how to slow down, how to truly focus on one day at a time. It’s teaching us what’s important – health and community, helping each other – and it’s teaching us what gratitude really means. I think about how at the end of this storm, we’ll emerge stronger, more resilient, kinder.

Then I remember that we’re the lucky ones. There are so many people who will find it a lot harder to bounce back once the storm passes. I have friends who have lost their jobs, friends who are working reduced hours on a reduced salary. My brother-in-law had to shut down the restaurant he had dreamed of opening since he was 19, and a good friend shut the doors of his popular neighbourhood café. Nobody knows how long this standstill will last.

And I remember that this is only the beginning. This virus is going to change us forever. I just hope it’s not a superficial, short-lived change. I hope we learn from the ‘coronapocalypse’ and change the way we treat each other and the planet. 

– Andrea Sophocleous

Coronavirus is DEFEATABLE! 

– Kell White


– Clara Tang

Batten down the hatches.

Tighten the belt. 

Scroll through the notes in your phone. 

Act on the half-thoughts in your head.


Write the next great Australian novel. 

Pen the card for your friend’s wedding, from four months ago. 

Send a note to your mum telling her how much you love the creamy, vegetable spiral pasta she made when you were a kid that you called ‘Spirali’ in a thick Italian accent. 


Read in the afternoon. 

Crack the spine of Infinite Jest

Read Goosebumps: Escape from Camp Run-for-Your-Life, instead. 



Bake sourdough. 

Bake a Napoleon cake with 10 layers that takes 24 hours to make. 


Get to know yourself, your neighbours’ daily movements, your roomie’s quirks, your pet’s escapades, your partner’s cliché boardroom banter. 

Buy a sex toy. See what happens. 


Create a short film. 

The short film that always gets sidelined. 

Watch all of Errol Morris’ docos.

Start researching your own. 

Get sidetracked and create an Instagram account of your neighbours’ daily movements.


Study psychology. 

Miss physical human interaction.

Even your friend who hugs you unnecessarily. 



Pursue a business idea.

Realise you don’t have any money because you’ve been laid off or had your hours cut.

And you’re worried you can’t pay rent, pay the mortgage, or put food on the table. 

Abandon business idea.

Figure out how to take advantage of the situation on the other end. 

Like Putin after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 


Plan the podcast you’ve been telling everyone you’re going to make. 

It’s this really cool idea that no one has ever thought of before. 

Search the idea on Apple Podcasts.

Find out it’s already a top-charting podcast.

Think you can do a better job anyway.

Set up a makeshift studio in your closet.

Hit record. 


Now’s the time to do what you’ve always wanted but have been too busy to.

Off you go.

Or don’t. 

– Lee Spencer


– Andrew Reeves (inspired by M. Stevens)

Going bush to get back to ‘The Burbs’

Tom Gerrard likes to keep it simple. That means minimal colours and leaving a background of exposed grain on the wood panels he paints on. And it means thinking away from the hustle of Melbourne.

Gerrard’s series ‘The Burbs’, which is currently showing at The Royals offices in Sydney and Melbourne, is a celebration of suburban life. The drawings the pieces were based on were done in the high-country towns of Benalla and Bright.

“I love getting out of town and searching out ideas for future paintings. I find it easier to think away from the hustle and bustle of Melbourne,” Gerrard says.

Two men compete in a wrestling match

His career started as a street artist in mid-90s Melbourne. And his work has become known globally for its stripped-back approach to characters, architecture and nature.

For ‘The Burbs’, he kept the palette basic as a way to modernise the older, more traditional subject matter. 

“Colours are an important part of my art practise. Being that I rarely paint in more than five colours, each colour is considered. I would like people to feel as though they are looking at a modern painting,” Gerrard says.

“My suburban paintings are a documentation of scenes that are disappearing from our landscape.”

Gerrard returned to Australia in 2016 after eight years travelling the world, and began focussing his work exclusively on Australian life, suburban culture and his natural surroundings. 

Check out his art podcast, Bench Talk.