Media muscles in on creativity

Once established as a top ten advertising agency in the UK, it’s hard to put a foot wrong with clients. That’s one of the key messages to emerge from the latest Marketing Week Advertising Agency Reputations survey, now in its tenth year.

True, the order has changed radically, but the majority of names which populated the top ten chart in 1989 are still there: JWT, AMV, McCann-Erickson, Saatchi & Saatchi, O&M, BBH and BMP prominent among them. WCRS, now in ninth position, was number 11 in 1989. The only spectacular interlopers have been M&C Saatchi (number eight this year) and TBWA (number ten) – which has ballooned in size through mergers over the past two years. (Note also that GGT, with which TBWA has recently merged, was number eight in 1989.) Y&R and DMB&B are the two top ten agencies which, exceptionally, have fallen from grace.

In some ways it’s no surprise to find such stability. Prudent, established brand names use their resources to ensure they are constantly refreshed in the client’s mind. They buy talent, they diversify, they acquire other agencies as changing circumstances dictate. Conversely, the survey shows that raw entrepreneurial energy, which is the lifeblood of the business, rarely makes a lasting impact. None of the Third Wave agencies set up just over ten years ago has established themselves in the charmed circle, although HHCL came pretty close at times. M&C may yet prove to be an exception – although Maurice Saatchi’s reputation among clients can scarcely be called Third Wave.

Nevertheless, ten years has seen a radical change. The colourful carousel of top ten agencies is not quite the perpetuum mobile it appears to be. Top clients – the survey polls 150 of the biggest-spending 450 – have become increasingly familiar with, and critical of, media buying and planning performance. Virtually every year the media specialists have increased their standing in the survey at the expense of full-service agencies. No fewer than five make their appearance in this year’s top 25 table, and this despite the fact that their client score is handicapped by disqualification from the all-important creativity criterion.

The dynamic tension between full-service agencies gradually transmuting into creative consultancies and media specialists whose enormous economies of scale are beginning to dwarf the agency networks they serve can only increase over the years. The collapsed merger between MacManus’ and Burnett’s media operations demonstrates that media concentration may not be a linear development, but it is an inevitable one. It cannot fail to register on client consciousness.

How ironic if in ten years time, MindShare enjoyed a higher rating among top clients than either JWT or O&M.

Cover Story, page 26; News Analysis, page 23

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