The Enron scandal could, in the long term, provide a bizarre silver lining for an advertising industry that has grown neurotically insecure about its standing in the boardroom.
For while admen have been accused of many things – irresponsible hucksterism among them – the quality of their advice has never been tainted by a scandal that goes to the heart of their business. Not so the smug management consultant, whose role as a dispassionate dispenser of professional advice must now be under serious scrutiny. Just as the Enron scandal will not stop at Enron – as the depressed share price of General Electric and Tyco already demonstrates – so its muddied waters will lap round a good few more than Arthur Andersen ankles.
Sadly, the ad industry is not in great shape to recover the ground it has lost over the past decade to the ‘professions’ – accountants, lawyers, but chiefly management consultants – as purveyors of boardroom-quality advice. Many of the reasons are not hard to discover. They lie in the fact that advertising, like journalism, is fundamentally a trade or craft, not a profession. This has little to do with the intellectual or creative merit of the people working in it, and much to do with the low, permeable barriers to entry for would-be participants. While ‘professional’ advisers have built a formidable panoply of competitive examinations around themselves, the advertising industry – or the rest of marketing services for that matter – has signally failed to do so. That matters when it comes to standing, fees and indirectly attracting young talent to the industry.
But there is another relevant aspect of the industry’s weak culture that is worth touching on – again in contrast with the professions – and that is the tendency for agencies to multiply like splitting protoplasm.
Breakaways are not unknown in the world of management consultancy, but they are not that frequent either. Remember, the biggest in recent times – Accenture – was driven by a legal decision, not by entrepreneurial rebellion. In agency culture, by contrast, it is a way of life – as the recent crop of start-ups demonstrates all too clearly. On one level, that’s very encouraging: the low-entry barriers mean that a bunch of talented people can offer, without running absurd personal financial risks, a refreshing creative challenge to the big battalion networks that rule the world.
At another, there is a suspicion that endemic breakaways encourage clients to divide and rule. Behind a superior creative idea, the lure of top people personally working on your account and the egotistical pleasure of being a founding client, there must also lurk the satisfaction of a deal cut on price. Start-ups certainly aren’t the only reason why payscales in the advertising industry don’t match those of their professional rivals, but they must be a contributory factor.
Whatever its structural weaknesses, however, the marketing services business in general, and the ad industry in particular, has one commanding advantage over all its competitors for the chief executive’s ear. It understands how to foster and, just as importantly, manage creativity. The challenge, in times to come, must be to parlay creativity to a higher status in the boardroom.