Is Lindsay flogging a dead horse?

The following question is not meant unkindly; on the contrary, it is a compliment. Which major agency chief executive shortlist in the last year has not had Tim Lindsay attached to it?

Virtually all of them. Whether by hearsay, or on firmer, more evidential grounds, his name has popped up at DDB (first time round), Lowe, Saatchi & Saatchi – and of course, where he has ended up, TBWA. The one exception is Grey.

There’s quite a lot to be decrypted from the above information.

1. Clearly, Lindsay has been unhappy with his lot as head of Publicis UK for quite some time. This unhappiness long predates the present travails at the agency.

2. It’s not management challenges per se that he relishes, since he had no wish to be connected with Grey, whose reputation is even blander than that of Publicis. But he is interested in turning round troubled creative networks.

3. There seem to be an awful lot of these. The paucity of really capable managers, such as Lindsay, to fill the numerous posts that have fallen vacant suggests a business model in real trouble. The game appears to have moved elsewhere.

Let’s rewind a bit. Senior executives often quit a failing business in droves, like guests who have long since realised the best of the party is over but covertly seek mutual support in making the first move to the exit. Superficially, that looks like what happened at Publicis with the departure, in short order, of chief operating officer Rick Bendel, ad agency CEO Grant Duncan and finally group chief executive Lindsay himself.

End game at Publicis
The reality wasn’t that simple. Lindsay already felt unhappy with the agency group’s uninspiring attitude to creativity. But it was Bendel himself who finally did for Duncan and arguably Lindsay himself, by moving the flagship £45m Asda account to Fallon immediately he had installed himself as the supermarket’s marketing director. The other recent account losses – £27m MFI, £12m Post Office and the reshuffling of the Cadbury portfolio, were serious but not cause enough for Duncan, the man in the front line, to put a service revolver to his head.

Lindsay himself has been quick to point out that the revenue crisis was less dramatic than the “£90m losses” headlines had made it seem. Prior to the Cadbury reshuffle, Publicis was about £5m down (£4m of it on the advertising side), but that has to be seen in the context of UK group revenues totalling about £60m a year. Even so, the dent to morale, not least his own, should not be underestimated.

Despite all the bluff talk about new business flowing in, the valuable account window-dressing that Lindsay and Duncan had painstakingly constructed to make Publicis a more attractive place for clients to shop remains badly vandalised.

Moreover, though Lindsay may have been right that £5m losses were not mission-critical to Publicis’ survival in the UK, he will also have been aware that organic growth alone cannot close the gap. A management buy-in or acquisition is the usual strategic solution to such problems: with all the management mayhem that implies.

It’s a solution all the more inevitable now that Lindsay has written himself out of the Publicis script. Indeed, we already have a candidate management buy-in team, if industry reports are to be believed.

Merging and purging
But how plausible is a Fallon merger? Arguments advanced to support it include Fallon’s pre-eminence as a creative agency; the fact that it is a Publicis sister company (how neat – keep the restructuring discreetly in the family and bring back Asda and the realigned Cadbury business into the bargain); and the driving ambition of Robert Senior, Fallon’s managing partner, to take on a bigger challenge.

All very fine for Publicis, perhaps, but Senior surely can’t be that much of a glutton for punishment. Is Fallon’s senior management, post Michael Wall, so depleted that it must jeopardise its creative reputation with a messy merger to an account-servicing behemoth?

What once seemed an obvious management ploy for up-and-coming boutiques – when the Saatchi brothers merged with Compton and Frank Lowe bought into Wasey Campbell-Ewald or, rather later, when Abbott Mead Vickers was reversed into BBDO and RKC&R into Y&R – is not so transparently worth the risk today.

The world moves on
Now we have a situation where smaller, dynamic hotshops can handle their growth pains in ways that need not be nearly so compromising to their ultimate independence, or the principles on which they were founded.

It’s a world where Nitro can handle a large chunk of Masterfoods, where BBH has garnered much of Unilever’s global business, where Mother handles Boots and Red Brick Road Tesco. And where the preferred business model of expansion, when hooking up to the distribution power of networks, is the so-called BBH formula – recently reiterated by Clemmow Hornby Inge – which leaves controlling power in the hands of the smaller agency.

All of which raises an interesting question about the future of so-called big network hotshops. Creatively speaking, JWT, DDB, Saatchi, Lowe and, self evidently, TBWA are struggling. Only AMV.BBDO seems to be maintaining its original promise.

So why would Fallon, which appears to be servicing such demanding clients as Sony, Orange, Skoda and Cadbury perfectly well, saddle itself with the responsibility of a (probably) failing marketing services model?

And what is Tim Lindsay going to do with TBWA once he get’s there? I seem to remember that TBWA’s big contribution to the world of advertising is the principle of  Disruption. That’s beginning to look a bit dated in the age of internet Engagement. It’s a good job Lindsay enjoys a creative challenge.

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