So, McCann-Erickson has got to the top of the greasy pole at last: number one in the 14th Marketing Week Agency Reputations Survey.
In truth, it has always been a strong contender, much to the mystification of more creatively inspired agency folk. But its virtues were often the duller ones – the ones that keep clients but don’t win gongs: offering superior value for money, the most sharp-suited skills in the business, good planning insight and enviably watertight international coverage. Aggregated, these more than compensated for a widely perceived creative deficit.
Yet this does not explain what finally enabled McCann to beat Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO into second place. The more cynical will note that ‘value for money’ has overtaken ‘creativity’ as the single most important defining criterion of an agency’s performance. This is rare – it last occurred in the mid-Nineties – and undoubtedly reflects clients’ current preoccupation with the worst advertising and media recession in living memory.
But purely ‘defensive’ qualities hardly do justice to the nature of McCann’s triumph. After all, it has put out advertising that gets it talked about – notably for Bacardi; it has steadily increased its billings; and, most importantly perhaps, it has acquired leadership and personality under regional chief Ben Langdon.
One of Langdon’s reforms that may repay attention is his determined – some would say autocratic – centralisation of McCann’s non-advertising disciplines, such as direct marketing and PR, within McCann-Erickson Advertising. It may not be an impeccably ‘media neutral’ solution, but it does begin to recognise just how much the agency model has to change if it is to survive in these times of media fragmentation.
Another important portent of change is the rapid advance of media planner/buyer companies up the league table. Carat has arrived spectacularly at number three, after making its top-ten debut last year. It is not alone. Zenith (pre-Optimedia) moved up two to seventh, while MediaCom has come in at number nine; MindShare is 16th, MediaVest 21st, OMD UK 23rd, Starcom Motive 24th. These agencies are rapidly acquiring respect from clients in areas well outside their traditional remit. Indeed, they are increasingly indistinguishable from the traditional full-service agency in every respect except one: creative offering. Arguably, creativity can never be marginalised, but it could conceivably be packaged in a different way for clients, via media agencies. A critical issue adjacent to this is the growing media illiteracy of advertising agencies. A few, such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty, are now employing media planners to help redress the imbalance. It remains to be seen how successful they will be.
Another warning signal for ad agencies may be found in their declining status as a source of strategic advice. It is not immediately clear where clients are going for quality advice these days – management consultants are certainly part, but by no means all, of the story. But look at it this way: if you were a successful, advertising-bred entrepreneur, would your next shop necessarily be called an advertising agency? Or something else, such as a brand consultancy, or an insight agency? We’ll wait for Rupert Howell to provide the answer.