Mark Ritson: Here’s why you don’t ask a marketing professor for career advice

If I aspired to a career in agency-land, would I join Ogilvy & Mather’s branded house or Publicis’s house of brands? An excellent question, and here’s why I don’t have an answer.

career advice

One of the delights of being the fat bloke in a suit on the back page of Marketing Week for many years and then, with the digital revolution, the fat bloke in a suit on the Marketing Week website for many more, is that young marketers start to venerate you.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of them anti-venerate you too. Dear God, they do that a lot more. But simple numbers mean occasionally you get the odd positive mentoring question about qualifications, career advice and general marketing stuff from the new, shinier generation of marketers now entering our discipline.

Obviously, I revel in this kind of stuff. I have a wife who tells me what to do and a daughter who completely ignores me, so the chance to have anyone pay attention to me is simply too good an opportunity to pass up. Before a mentoring question has even fully arrived in my inbox I’ve already pulled up my chair, opened a bottle of wine and started hammering my advice into the nearest keyboard at a frightening rate of knots. Clearly, having spent almost a quarter of a century as a marketing professor without a single day of actual work to disturb my advanced thinking processes, I am the ideal person to proffer career advice by the bucketload.

So earlier this week when a young supplicant, who we will call Sarah, asked me a very good question via Twitter I could not resist. She had been offered a position at Ogilvy but was unsure of the merits of the company when rivals like Publicis operated very differently. What Sarah wanted to know was – well, I’ll let her take over from here:

In a nutshell, how likely is it that John Seifert’s new “single brand” strategy will weaken/dilute the Ogilvy brand and subsidiaries? I get the need for shifting to a single P&L, but wouldn’t it be better to do what Publicis has done and combine resources under the same roof, keep the sub-brands as they are, and simply tell clients we’re operating as integrated agency?

READ MORE: From branded house to house of brands, RBS’ strategy is both ambitious and radical

Intrigued by the situation and the rather excellent question I promised to respond by writing my column about it this week. Which is obviously what you’re reading now. Forgive me, therefore, if I answer directly to Sarah and not to you, dear reader. You can provide your own career advice in the comments section at the bottom but (and, Sarah, this is important) read my expert advice before you scan the words of the unwashed hordes below. Most of them are nutters.

The benefits of a branded house

OK, Sarah. If we look at the soon-to-emerge Ogilvy & Mather agency, it may be very much a work in progress, but it is clearly a company heading back to its original structure of a single, global, branded house operation. Earlier this year the group’s global chairman and CEO, John Seifert, announced that he planned to consolidate the various sub-brands under his control, such as Ogilvy One and Ogilvy PR, back to a single, integrated client offer.

This new one-stop shop should, in theory, allow a more fluid integration of different expertise and focus more on client needs rather than agency silos. It should also increase agency profitability significantly as the economies of running one global brand rather than a dozen different operations start to kick in. More importantly, the focus on a single brand with the associated advantages of a single set of corporate values, client positioning and identity make for a more coherent operation.

There is no more famous advertising thinker than David Ogilvy, so why not play his reputation and star-spangled myth for all its worth?

The reason most strategy consulting firms like McKinsey and BCG have maintained a similar approach for decades is that a mono-brand structure is often the best way to focus on client needs and cross-sell multiple projects on the back of past work. The lack of different brands within the same organisation also avoids the confusion and cannibalisation that would inevitably occur if sister brands all targeted the same potential client and competed for its business.

The other reason the big consulting firms have adopted a branded house approach is the subsequent increased power of the employer brand – a crucial consideration for firms that are, quite literally, selling their talent to clients. One culture, one hierarchy, one global system makes attracting, motivating and retaining the best people a far more achievable objective. This also must be near the top of Ogilvy & Mather’s justification for its own consolidation, given the centrality of good creative and strategic talent in running a successful agency and the current much-discussed dearth of talent in the industry these days.

Perhaps best of all, the return to the traditional brand architecture of a branded house and the original name of Ogilvy & Mather also enables the agency to use its inspirational founder – the late, ever great, David Ogilvy – as its totem. There is no more famous advertising thinker than he, so why not play his reputation and star-spangled myth for all its worth?

As you increasingly vie with the anodyne, anonymous faces from the tech firms of Menlo Park and Mountain View for the hearts and minds of your clients, what better source of differentiation could there be than that urbane figure and his trusty pipe in hand? The only slightly fudged part of the whole new structure for me is why the agency appears intent on holding onto the ancient extra appendage of Mather, when clearly this is all about Ogilvy and Ogilvy alone.

The case for a house of brands

But, dear Sarah, don’t sign that letter of intent just yet. For all the tobacco-infused romance of Ogilvy and the agency he created there are significant advantages to the Publicis way of doing this. As you’ve probably already discovered in the early years of your career the answer to most marketing questions is inevitably a mixture of ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘it depends’ (unless you’re reading a Byron Sharp book, in which case the answer is always ‘science’). You can make an equally plausible argument in favour of the house of brands approach favoured by Publicis too.

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Before I go any further let me state, for the record, that clearly Publicis do not see their operation as a house of brands. Oh no. If you look at their super-confusing, slightly mental corporate website the group contends that it has “transformed its business model” and is now structured around “four solution hubs” that all “share an agency backbone”. But once you scroll past all the HR bullshit about collaboration, integration and common purpose you get to the separate, standalone brands that make up the house of brands structure of Publicis.

For example, there might be a single hub called Publicis Media but it’s made up of Starcom, Zenith, Mediavest, Performics and Blue 449 (me neither). Similarly, you can have as many groovy pictures on your corporate website as you like of the Publicis Communications group but when you click on the affiliated dots you learn that the “group” consists of eight very distinct agencies that include Fallon, BBH, Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett. Tellingly, when you visit the homepages of these group agencies, none of them mention being part of the Publicis Group anywhere on their own websites. That would suggest a house of brands structure for sure.

Sister brands aren’t meant to get on. They are meant to compete and attempt to rip each other’s faces off while doing so.

Don’t get me wrong, Sarah. If I owned brands as big and powerful as the ones I’ve just mentioned in that last paragraph I’d be playing the house of brand approach too. What a portfolio! And the actual house of brands architecture has a lot going for it too. Ignore Publicis at your peril.

First, you can make just as strong an argument for multiple agencies being the key to integration as the single one-stop-shop. In fact, this is the basis of a 20-year old debate in which you either think the client should amass their integrated solution from the ‘best athlete’ in each specialism or rely on a single agency to be a ‘jack of all trades’. If you think the latter you prefer the new Ogilvy & Mather approach, if you think the former then Publicis and its selection box of different, distinct treasures might make more sense.

The other big advantage of playing the house of brands approach in agency land is a much easier and cleaner approach to client conflicts. In the good old days of advertising you only used to get one airline, one automotive brand and one beer company because a second competitor from the same category would never sleep in the same bed as the enemy. When you are a house of brands, however, you can pretty much have sex with everyone at the same time (this is a metaphor, Sarah, just to be clear).

Another more recent advantage of the group structure is that more and more clients are going the way of McDonalds and looking for a dedicated, specialised agency to service them. In the newly focused Ogilvy & Mather model that’s going to be an architectural pain in the arse to service and structure. But in the Publicis model you can create and kill smaller brands far more easily.

That also means that your ability to acquire smaller agencies and consulting firms, as big mega-groups are wont to do in this industry, is far greater. You sign the deal, absorb the company into your structure, wait the traditional three-year period for the founders to leave and set up a rival business, and then start the cycle all over again.

Another big advantage of the Publicis approach is crisis management. When you have all your apples in the same branded basket it only takes one bad fruit to cause global problems that affect all of them. It’s amazing how quickly the anticipated scale and synergy of a single brand can turn into rampant, arses-against-the-wall, flashing-red-lights, we’re-all-fucked crisis mode in a branded house structure. Something Ogilvy & Mather will need to be on top of from the very start.

In contrast, if you have a dozen baskets and one of them has a bad apple who we will call, oh I don’t know, Kevin, who says in a stupid indulgent interview that sexism is non-existent in his basket, he only fouls his own little basket and not the other eleven baskets that could have been infected.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, when you have so many distinct and amazing brands it can be hard – maybe even impossible – to envisage ever merging them into a single entity. I think Ogilvy One was a very impressive engagement agency but killing the ‘One’ and returning it to the mothership is not quite as tricky as trying to merge Fallon, BBH and Saatchi & Saatchi into a single shop.

These agencies don’t just have different origins, people, approaches and clients – they all fucking hate each other. This is, by the way, a very important part of a successful house of brands. Sister brands aren’t meant to get on. They are meant to compete and offer alternative approaches and, as is the way with capitalism, attempt to rip each other’s faces off while doing so. If they start to cosy up together and get all gooey then membership of a house of brands becomes a weakness, not a strength, and that does not end well for anyone.

So far, Sarah, I seem to have made a case for you joining both companies. So allow me to confuse the whole situation still further by pointing out that your whole question makes no sense because in it you compare apples to oranges. Ogilvy & Mather is, indeed, a branded house and Publicis is a house of brands. But Ogilvy is not a standalone company. It’s a wholly owned part of WPP. So in reality by joining Ogilvy & Mather you are also joining WPP, which has all the multi-brand advantages of Publicis.

I can see the merits of a career within the single-brand focus of a renewed Ogilvy & Mather. I can see the attractions of a job within a group like Publicis, with so many diverse power brands. I’d also consider a group role at WPP – and that was not even part of your original question, I just over-mentored that fucker in through the side door when you weren’t looking.

I guess ultimately what you want to know is what I would do if I was in your shoes. Well, I’d probably ask someone smarter and more experienced than me for some career advice. Does anyone have Jeremy Bullmore’s email address?