Ad agencies at the crossroads

Advertising spend may have hit an all-time 12bn high, but you’ll still find West End advertising chiefs stalking agency corridors with an anxious frown on their faces.

It’s not tomorrow they’re worried about, but the day after tomorrow. A strange preoccupation for an industry that normally cares little for the future and lives very much in the present. But the issue is real enough all the same, and was admirably summarised by Graham Hinton in his recent inaugural address as president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

‘We’ve become more identified with the pictures and less identified with the thinking behind them,’ he said. What he had in mind was the inexorable rise of the management consultant, a breed devoid of all original ideas (according to admen at any rate) but possessing an admirable ability to extract outrageous fees from board-level clients. ‘If only’, appeared to be the sentiment.

Alas for advertising agencies, strategic consultancy is not the only terrain they must fiercely contest. The very world of ‘pictures’ seems under threat. That, at least, is what some remarkable pitch results in the past week would suggest.

The 45m Cable & Wireless account, one of the most important to go out to pitch this year, gathered such illustrious names as Bartle Bogle Hegarty, HHCL & Partners and Saatchi & Saatchi on its shortlist, only to fall to Rapier Stead & Bowden, a direct marketing agency rather less hallowed in creative circles. Fluke? The perversity of a client who was subsequently obliged to fall on her sword? Improbable. Ruth Blakemore may have left suddenly, but her appointment of Rapier was not the reason. CWC seems unlikely to reverse its decision in the near future.

And what of the equally mysterious appointment of leading DM agency WWAV Rapp Collins to the 10m Legal & General media account above the more obvious claims of something like The Media Centre?

The trend towards more integrated precision marketing is of course nothing new. Heinz, Unilever and The Telegraph – to quote but a few examples – have demonstrated a sharpened and well-publicised commitment to it over the past few years. What’s new is the way that direct marketing agencies are now treading on the traditional ground of ad agencies with aggressive confidence. As Dominic Proctor, chief executive of J Walter Thompson, succinctly puts it: ‘Any agency that fails to recognise the threat from direct marketing is itself under threat.’

Only, it’s not just DM agencies that are on the prowl. Wolff Olins, better known for corporate identity work and brand consultancy, will shortly announce it is to handle a 6m above-the-line advertising campaign. Whatever next?

Cover Story, page 32; Ruth Blakemore, News Analysis, page 18

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