Agencies have woken up and are ready to enter the new era

Despite facing an unprecedented rate of technological change, the advertising industry has not stagnated or gone into retreat, as the AdForum Global Summit showed. By David Wethey

Imagine the scene: 27 agency search consultants from across the globe gathering for a week in New York to visit 20 of the world’s leading agencies en masse. Only an impresario with a sense of the absurd would take on such a challenge. Hervé de Clerk of adforum.com is that man. The event, the AdForum Global Summit, took place last week.

The AdForum is always about the evolution of marketing and advertising. I warmed up by meeting some clients at the Agency Relations Forum run by the ANA (think ISBA with an American accent). Last year, six procurement people attended: this year it was 40. Last year, the average tenure of a marketing director was 22 months. This year, it was reported to have fallen to 12 months in the packaged goods sector.

The ANA guys did their best to talk up the status of marketing, but no one seemed to believe it. A heavy diet of media launched the week, with an inspiring presentation at MediaCom, led by Alexander Schmidt-Vogel, and a spellbinding vision of the future at Starcom from the talented Rishad Tobaccowala. Andy Berlin of Red Cell made an al fresco announcement of his new United mini-network.

There was a frank audience with Omnicom chief executive John Wren on Tuesday. I won’t betray his trust, but he sent our minds spinning with facts and figures. Three that stick are the commitment to Omnicom University with classes of 50 at any time; the fact that 90 Omnicom agencies work on DaimlerChrysler; and that Omnicom has 1,500 offices.

Elsewhere, we were reminded that the future has already arrived at Zenith Optimedia, and given a sneak preview of an important strategic development at Young & Rubicam.

Saatchi & Saatchi treated us to a much-improved global reel midweek (be sure to catch the Scope “Eskimos” commercial on adforum.com) and dynamic round-ups from the regions. There was an impressive session with David Jones, the third chief executive in as many years at Euro RSCG. And aside from the first flowering of Jeff Kling’s creative output and the striking Volvo “Life on Board” campaign, the “IC” of BRIC was brought to life with eye-opening presentations from Suman Srivastava and Mason Lin.

On the Thursday, we started the day with a blast of Disruption, Agencies of the Year (in 27 different countries) and Cannes Lions at TBWA’s power breakfast. TBWA showed us the extraordinary Pedigree “Dogs” success story, while Brett Gosper offered a spirited debrief on how TBWA won the lion’s share of the Sprint pitch after the Nextel takeover. How surprised we were to read later in the day, en route to McCann, that Gosper was… en route to McCann.

Friday saw us meet Michael Roth, the recently appointed Interpublic chief executive. He was relentlessly positive about the group’s cash situation and its determination to support its three major networks as well as its huge range of specialist outfits. He also underlined his public commitment to rooting out undisclosed volume discounts.

At Grey we also met Jim Heekin and the legendary Ed Meyer, who is still very much in the saddle even with his platinum bus pass. Two quotes: “I came to see you today to prove I was still ambulatory,” and: “Last year I merged Grey with WPP.” Steve Blamer (ex-Grey) was frank about the rebuild at FCB, but underlined the agency’s ability to pick up large accounts, such as Motorola.

The over-riding theme of the forum was dominant consumers, free to reject the 30-second commercial if they want to, and to decide where they will interact with brands – or not. The agencies we met seem to be committed to an integrated approach, and to the Tesco strategy of “following the customer”. They’ve reorganised, restaffed and reinvented to meet client needs. Compared with last year, the media agencies were just as impressive about the future – but the ad agencies are catching up.

The people we met were impressive – even more so when I read the CVs. We met legendary leaders like Wren, Roth, Meyer, and John Dooner. We met people likely to be legends: Ken Kaess, Tobaccowala, Schmidt-Vogel, Steve King (Zenith Optimedia), Eric Einhorn (McCann), and Ann Fudge. We met people we know with a different hat on: Heekin, Blamer and Gosper. We met top creatives: Wnek, Bull, Mellors, Granger, and Kling.

We didn’t meet some people we thought we were going to: Maurice Lévy, Ron Berger, Jean-Marie Dru, Lord Saatchi, Jack Klues and Fernando Rodes. We didn’t meet Sir Martin Sorrell, but he was mentioned everywhere anyway.

This is an industry with well-documented problems – corporate, accounting, remuneration, client companies in ferment and client people who last five minutes. It is in the throes of the biggest upheaval in its history, and facing unprecedented technological change. But overall (far more than in previous years) agencies have new systems, processes and plans to cope. And they have some great people, even if they do seem to be moving round town at the same rate as footballers – with no transfer deadline in sight.

David Wethey is the founder and chairman of Agency Assessments International

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