Agencies face a changing remit

This year’s Agency Reputations Survey – now recognised as an industry benchmark – holds a surprise. The star performers are not (with one or two exceptions) full service advertising agencies but media specialists.

Most remarkably, TMD Carat has moved up eight places to seventh in overall ranking – the first time in nine years that a media-only agency has made it into the top ten. Zenith, CIA (despite its current travails) and PHD all appear in the top 25.

There are a number of clear signals here for full service agencies, if they care to heed them. At a superficial level, the top clients which form the survey’s sample, have clearly upgraded media skills in the mix of criteria by which they rank agency performance. No great surprise in itself – the evidence of an increasingly complex and perhaps frightening media world is all around us.

But a more important inference is that clients are downgrading creativity – in the conventional sense that ad agencies employ that term. It’s the one area where media specialists can’t compete with full service agencies (except in a lateral sense) and yet it no longer seriously handicaps their performance.

Of course, this is no zero sum game: the process of reappraisal is more complicated. Significantly, for example, TMD Carat’s rerating is evident across a number of criteria. These include: value for money; strategic thinking; strong financial and executive management; account management; international coverage; and the ability to act in clients’ longer term business interests.

Here is another indication – anecdotal perhaps, but one among many others – that conventionally-structured full service agencies are not keeping abreast of the times. Many are still fixated on the idea that a compelling image on television is, at base, what the client relationship is about. This is less and less the case.

The real theatre of operations is moving elsewhere and involves a much wider definition of creativity: access to brain power. It focuses upon strategic advice; in other words, who has the ear of key players on the corporate board. And it’s a great leveller, in that ad agencies, however august their heritage, must increasingly compete with a range of external consultants to achieve that hallowed status.

There are, however, encouraging signs of lateral thinking. It has emerged this week, for example, that WPP Group is pitching against M&C Saatchi and the Added Value Company to implement an internal communications programme for Shell. This is precisely the kind of business that would require boardroom-level liaison and might, if successfully implemented, lead to greater things. Interestingly, WPP is being represented not by its Shell agency in the pitch, but by a ‘virtual consultancy’ which involves personnel from Sampson Tyrell, a design consultancy, Hill & Knowlton, the PR agency and Metro Video, a facilities company, as well as O&M.

News, page 7; Analysis, page 22; Cover Story, page 40

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