As we hurtle into Christmas, the New Year and a brief vocational hiatus, it’s normal to indulge in retrospection. This upcoming festive period promises to be even more poignant because we are reaching the end of a decade.
In a few weeks the 2020s will begin. That means most marketers are looking back in the industry rear-view mirror to review their big lessons from the decade about to pass and derive a set of coordinates for the new one appearing on the horizon.
The marketing press is a catalyst for all this, of course. In recent years, even the slenderest publication has collated sketchy lists of people, brands and agencies, booked a suitable venue and spent their next quarterly marketing budget getting everyone wasted while handing out spurious awards by the handful. It’s already difficult to avoid the ‘marketing something of the year’ in your news feed or the immediate humble-bragging that follows it on LinkedIn.
Things are set to degrade further this time round, as December and the decade tick down, because they can all go one better than an annual award and overdo it tenfold. ‘Tis the season for the ‘marketing something of the decade’.
The biggest MSOTD award so far is invariably Campaign’s run-off for the honour of being agency of the decade. Last month, the publication came up with a shortlist of British creative agencies and, with a flurry earlier this week, announced that adam&eveDDB was its 10-year champion.
It’s a worthy choice. Truly iconic work for the likes of John Lewis, Marmite and a host of others has made the agency the toast of the advertising world.
The industry in charge of building brands and helping consumers notice things is a grey blanket of indistinct identities.
And it’s more than just creativity. Perhaps more than any other agency, adam&eveDDB has also pushed the effectiveness agenda. The firm has one of the two godfathers of advertising effectiveness, Les Binet, sitting in a corner office and running his bespectacled gaze over much of the agency’s output as the group head of effectiveness. It does not get much better than that.
Despite my gigantic misgivings about MSOTD type stuff, this particular recognition feels fair and well earned. My problem is not with Campaign giving out this award. Nor with adam&eveDDB winning the gong. It’s with the name of the agency itself. Which is bonkers.
I have been obsessed with the stupidity of the brand name adam&eveDDB for ages. Whenever I meet anyone from this fine agency I always bemoan its ridiculousness to them and I am yet to encounter any kind of pushback. Every time I read about the agency I learn something and then I tut at the high-school thinking behind its brand architecture.
My point is: why bother with adam&eve anymore? It’s a ridiculous, indulgent prefix that should have been lost years ago. I’ve pondered making this point for years in the press but always held back because so many good people do such good work over there. But on the occasion of their ascension to the top of the advertising pecking order, I feel now is the right time to make an impassioned plea for the team on Bishop’s Bridge Road to apply many of their principles to their own business and kill their titular biblical origins.
I say that because the creative agency landscape is so fucking indistinct it is embarrassing. Aside from about 300 people who work in the game and the dozen that cover it in the media, no one else in marketing has a clue which agency is which.
In the shortlist for agency of the decade, Campaign could just as easily have plumped for AMV BBDO or BBH over adam&eveDDB. Not only would no one in the broader marketing community have raised an eyebrow, none of us would have known which was which. The preponderance of Bs and Ds and the lack of any singular efforts to make the agencies distinctive or different from the others renders the whole creative agency landscape in direct contradiction to what it is meant to look like.
I will give you a simple example. Tom Roach is super-famous and possesses a wonderful advertising brain. Roach has contributed more than most to the debate around standing out from the competition. He has pointed out a number of times that whether the goal is distinctiveness or differentiation, the sin of sameness is “commercial suicide”.
Despite the fact that he is a big name in marketing and advertising, and someone with a singular reputation for pushing the argument for distinctiveness, I bet you have no clue which agency he joined in 2019. Go ahead, spin the wheel.
Quick quiz. Advertising executive Tom Roach left advertising agency Adam & Eve/DDB to join which rival agency……no cheating just guess.
— Mark Ritson (@markritson) December 3, 2019
My Twitter poll is a silly way to make a serious point. Hiring Tom is a big deal but only if the industry knows which agency hired him. I’m asked about four times a year which is the best advertising agency and – I have to be honest – I never get past the Scrabble nightmare of Ds and Bs, and usually blurt out the first relatively coherent acronym that springs to mind.
Or I say, “whichever one Les Binet works for…you know…thingy” and wait for the person asking to complete my answer (or, more usually, look at me with an equally blank expression).
The industry in charge of building brands and helping consumers notice things is a grey blanket of indistinct identities. To that point, Tom Roach actually left BBH to join adam&eveDDB this year so the correct answer to the Twitter quiz should have been option 4. But my point, ably made by my Twitter accomplices drawn from across marketing, is that people might know the name Tom Roach but very few know the name of the agency that employs him.
And. That. Is. Stupid. Ask any expert on brands – why not start with Tom Roach if you get lucky working out where he works – and they will tell you that without distinction there can be little differentiation.
Cost to the DDB brand
What makes the agency of the decade’s backwardness even more baffling is that it’s mothership, DDB, is top drawer. If adam&eveDDB were owned by Accenture or – god forbid – Facebook, I could understand the reticence to coalesce. But DDB is solid quality.
It’s led by the redoubtable Wendy Clarke. It was co-founded by Bill Bernbach – who is to advertising what Moses is to the Old Testament. And, perhaps most important, DDB is the one agency that understands the need to make itself, along with its clients, more distinctive and different and has set about doing just that.
The clever use of corporate identity that DDB now employs to signal its agency globally (see above) and the way they play with that image to signal different clients and locations is a classic exemplar of ‘code play’. The inherent focus on client growth over the usual industry pangs for creativity also marks out DDB as something different.
That’s an overly complex way of saying that DDB actually understands that no one, apart from their employees and competitors, understands who is who or what makes each agency different. And it is trying to remedy the situation.
Meanwhile, back in London, the current adam&eveDDB logo is show below. See what I mean?
And it gets worse in New York where you’ll find – wait for it – the logo below. Still with me? In New York, where DDB was founded in 1949 and where it operates as one of the biggest agencies in the country, adam&eve has its own office and exists as a separate entity. Ten minutes downtown from DDB’s global HQ.
Don’t get me wrong, adam&eve was a fine independent agency. You’d have struggled to find four smarter advertising minds with a better work ethic or a greater grasp of advertising than James Murphy, Ben Priest, Jon Forsyth and David Golding. But they sold out for an initial £25m in 2012 and had received a total of £110m by the time their legendary earn-out had concluded.
That’s a large amount of cash for an agency predominantly owned by four blokes. But it’s a very small sum set against DDB’s global billings and 2012 was also a very long time ago in advertising history. Adam&eve has now been part of DDB for twice as long as it existed as a standalone agency.
In a modern advertising world that deems it strategically prudent to replace J Walter Thompson with Wunderman Thompson and abbreviate Young & Rubicam out of existence, adam&eve wants to hang on to an agency brand name that means almost nothing to clients, only really ever operated in one country and was acquired almost a decade ago.
That splendid final payout for the founders meant that all four received many, many millions. Advertising is a great business but £25m changes a man in profound and fantastic ways. The kind of ways that make riding the Circle Line every day to Paddington an entirely inconceivable pursuit.
By 2018 all four of them had left the business. Which again makes the reticence to lose the agency’s biblical prefix all the harder to understand. If there was a crusty old founder somewhere on the top floor with golden memories and a minority stake in the business I could better understand why the agency has refused to join the branded house party. But all vested interest is gone. Get on with it.
And there are real opportunity costs from the inertia. Making DDB London the agency of the decade would have been a lot more useful for the rest of the DDB network than a gong for adam&eveDDB. And the London agency would get a lot more global credibility if it joined properly and seamlessly onto its agency mothership.
It’s an amazing and truly well-earned moment to be crowned agency of the decade. But why not end that decade with a final strategic flourish and consign both Adam and Eve to the agency dumpster?