UK advertising is essentially a craft-driven entrepreneurial business. To be sure, it has its Leviathans which seem to dominate the industry, like WPP Group or Omnicom. But the regeneration of ideas, integral to its long-term success, comes mostly from lower down: small groups of talented people gambling their precarious wealth on an unswerving belief in themselves. Advertising remains the ultimate risk business where you’re only as good as your last idea. All the more extraordinary then that the UK – and London in particular – has managed to play the most successful host in the world to that flamboyant but fragile trade for a whole generation. A roll-call of names provides eloquent enough testimony of the fact: CDP, BMP, Saatchi, Lowe Howard-Spink, BBH, AMV, WCRS, GGT and latterly HHCL. More difficult to explain is the reason why. Various theories have been advanced, ranging from the pre-eminence of the English language, to a risk-taking culture, our humour, cosmopolitanism (compared with a good deal of US advertising at least) and the relative sophistication of the UK media environment. What really matters is whether this unique blend of conditions, however defined, will serve the UK so well in the future. Evidently leading new wave agencies around the world believe it will. Despite the prohibitive set-up costs, they are beating a path to London as fast as circumstances will allow. Among them, Wieden & Kennedy, whose work for Nike, Microsoft and Coke needs little introduction; Fallon McElligott, the US shop with the modest ambition of becoming the ‘premier creative agency in the world’; Scholz & Friends, BMW’s agency in Germany; and Campaign Palace, a new-wave agency from Australia. But the outlook is clouded. No doubt clients will welcome more creative choice, but the agencies will find themselves in a cut-throat environment. Too little restructuring took place after the last recession and as a consequence there are too many top 50 agencies struggling for a living. Perversely, these new entrants, if they take root, may succeed in catalysing the overdue market shake-out, which could relieve the pressure somewhat. There is, in any case, an ‘entrepreneurial gap’ opening up in the middle ground, as some of the leading players graduate to the status of international players. LH-S and AMV trod that path long ago (through their alliances with IPG and Omnicom/BBDO respectively); and more recently HHCL and BBH have decided to play the same game (as predicted in our Cover Story last year – MW February 28). On the other hand, the middle ground lacks the confidence that gave rise to Third (or indeed Second) Wave agencies a decade and more ago. The suspicion lingers that London creativity has had some of the stuffing knocked out of it. And that the main reason overseas new wave agencies are flocking here is because their lead clients are hopelessly in love with the past.
Cover Story, page 30