An industry with a choice of chasms

Worldwide marketing services networks are facing a “cliff-edge moment” according to one of the advertising industry’s most experienced operators.

What Maurice Lévy, head of the world’s fourth-largest network group, Publicis, had in mind was the medium term and what he sought to convey by the graphic image of a cartoon wolf pedalling furiously in the void beyond the cliff-edge was an industry dramatically stripped of the television advertising platform that is its vital commercial underpinning.

But why wait five years for the cliff-edge to arrive? Some say it is here already, with the fabric of the justificatory global agency deal, pioneered by WPP Group, fraying before our very eyes. The Samsung affair provides the most vivid evidence of crisis. Only last November, the Samsung global business (well, the vast majority of it at any rate) was safely tucked up at WPP after one of the most protracted pitches in history. Yet last week, Samsung chief marketing officer Gregory Lee emerged from a pitch so secret that not even WPP seemed to know about it, to announce the transfer of most of JWT/Berlin Cameron’s creative and account planning responsibilities to Publicis unit Leo Burnett.

Lee cited “creative differences” as the reason for the move, and asserted his right as client to extract the best ideas and resources, wherever they may be available. Now it might be pointed out, in WPP’s defence, that much of the global business has stayed put, including media buying and direct marketing. Further, that Samsung is known to be a particularly complex, difficult client; the inference being that an isolated fit of pique (even if it does result in over &£100m of business taking flight) does not amount to a trend.

However, Lee’s viewpoint is by no means unique. Motorola chief marketing officer Geoffrey Frost has gone on record with similar criticisms of the global network model. Frost, like Lee, is scathing about the creative deficiencies of these networks; and purports to be building a roster of specialist agencies that will be ‘more creative with media’. We might also cite Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s recent BA and Omo wins as corroboration of this argument, for BBH surely did not win them on account of the strength of its global network.

In fact, the days of the global agency deal hardly seem numbered. There are sound procurement and logistical reasons why global clients will continue to like the simplicity of global networks. And if CMOs subsequently express unhappiness with the creative product and decide to do something about it? There’s nothing new there. About 14 years ago Coca-Cola, despairing of the creative work of its global agency, McCann Erickson, brought in a new Hollywood-inspired creative agency – Mike Ovitz’s CAA. But CAA (or Berlin Cameron for that matter) did not last at the creative helm; McCann, on the other hand, is still very much in evidence on the account.

In short, it is tempting to see the present round of creative-brief musical chairs as part of a much more traditional phenomenon: ritual roster agency punishment.

That, of course, does not alter the fact that holding company deals often lead to frustrating creative inadequacy. Nor that Maurice Lévy’s vision of the “cliff-edge moment” could be the real nemesis of advertising-bred global agency networks.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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