Last week, Maurice Levy, head of worldwide advertising group Publicis, and Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, declared their unstinting admiration for each other in a pact as rich in collaborative rhetoric as it was threadbare in content.
As a profession of friendship, it was about as convincing as two rival Renaissance princes sitting down to a banquet of reconciliation. Who will draw the stiletto first?
Google has not got to where it is today by being an open, giving sort of company. Yet even control freaks must, at times, show supple negotiating skills if they are to succeed in their ultimate objectives. While Google, as a self-avowed “technology” company, has frequently denied that it wishes to become an agency, it certainly needs agency help if, having pretty much sewn up search, it is to crack the display market. And it may indeed, at some point, buy an agency group if that will do the necessary.
For the moment, its interests seem best served by forming a fairly wide, even-handed, and loose series of co-operative pacts with all the big agency groups. This, in fact, is what it is doing. Publicis may boast of collaborating with Google for over a year and building up a special account group, but there’s nothing exclusive in that. Omnicom, IPG and WPP will be doing the same. Indeed, WPP is probably the biggest Google collaborator, with an account group that handles perhaps $1bn (£500m) of business.
Still, first blood to Levy with a spectacular PR coup that upstages his competition and, arguably, Schmidt himself. How can it possibly suit Google to seem in any way “exclusively” in bed with one agency group rather than another, and only the fourth largest at that?
For Levy, on the other hand, there are self-evident, short-term advantages in clasping Google more closely to the bosom of Publicis. All global marketing services groups are suffering a “legacy” problem. They perceive their clients’ growing appetite for digital spend, but do not necessarily have the expertise to satisfy it.
A key instance of this in Publicis’ case has been its increasing disenchantment with Donovan Data Systems, the software that underpins virtually all the working parts of, for example, Starcom’s operations, from media buying to implementation and payment. DDS, in Publicis’ view, is simply not up to the digital age and it has been casting about for alternatives. Google could provide a much-needed technology graft (though some have asked exactly how this graft squares with Publicis’ $1.3bn (£650m) acquisition of Digitas). And certainly Levy can sell the so-called “JV” to his clients that way.
But Google, as it usually does, will probably have the last laugh. It’s not so much that Google is actively out to “disintermediate” agencies – once it has got the relationship it wants with clients – but that it is confident history will do the job on its behalf.