Tuesday, September 7, 2010

We Miss the Choices

I look at the advertising agency landscape and I realize how much it has changed in the last fifteen or twenty years. We talk a lot about how the business has changed – holding companies, fees, digital, silos, fewer people being asked to do more – but we don’t really talk about the kinds of agencies out there.

Once upon a time, clients and employees had real choices in the kinds of corporate cultures they could choose. If one was creatively driven (that does not mean a lack of strategy), there was Scali, Ally & Gargano, Wells, Levine Huntley, Chiat/Day. Strategically, there was Ayer, Grey, Esty, Cunningham & Walsh. If a client needed worldwide muscle, there was Bates, Kenyon & Eckhardt, Lintas, D’Arcy. All these agencies have one thing in common: they are all gone. Most have merged and submerged into the giants. Parts of them are still there, but not the whole. 

Employees had ample cultures to choose from. If Grey didn’t work, an employee could go to similar shops –
Compton, Dancer, Bates. If a client was unhappy with Chiat/Day, but liked their creativity, they could go to Messner, Warwick Baker, Margeotes. Mad Dogs. One could move to a highly respected small, strategic agency like Waring & LaRosa or a huge creatively driven shop like BBD&O. You may disagree with my categorizations, but the point is that there were a huge number of choices of all sizes and shapes.

(The shame is that advertising people under the age of 35 don’t know most of the agencies I just mentioned.)

I cannot think of a single advertising merger during the last twenty or so years where one plus one equaled two or more. In most cases, when the smoke cleared and loyal clients left, one plus one equaled about one and a half, if they were lucky. Perhaps there were back office savings which justified the purchase or merger, but for the most part the cultures were destroyed and the very clients that were “purchased” left the agency. There have been a few exceptions – the purchase by Publicis of D’Arcy and then the merger of the old Bloom agency into it is one that comes to mind immediately.

The holding companies buy and sell agencies and completely disregard their individual cultures in favor of "savings". In some cases, I believe that the mergers are well intended, but often misguided. Look, for instance, at the disastrous merger of Ammirati & Puris with Lintas. Ammirati was a wonderful agency, started in the mid-1970's by the very talented Ralph Ammirati and Martin Puris. By the early 1990's it had become a powerhouse creative agency with accounts like BMW and Burger King. Lintas, a worldwide giant, always suffered from creative issues. Although there were worldwide pockets of creative strength, the agency also suffered from business issues. Most people forget that the initials at LINTAS stood for Lever International Advertising Service. Putting the two agencies together was an honest attempt to strengthen the creative of one, particularly the New York office, and improve the worldwide reach of the other. Instead, it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, causing the ultimate demise of both shops.

But I digress.  The point is that the business has become homogenized. The late, great Phil Dougherty, ad columnist for the New York Times, once said to me that all agencies were the same. His logic: If Bill Hamilton, the esteemed creative director of the old Chiat/Day New York, could move to Ogilvy, then Ogilvy and Chiat were the same place. I always disagreed. But in retrospect, he had a well taken point.

There are a few agencies today which have differentiated themselves - Crispin, Kaplan Thaler, Mother, Strawberry Frog, Goodby, BBH, Deutsch, Kirshenbaum, Widen, Fallon, Amalgamated. If a client hires them or a new employee goes there, they pretty much know what they are getting. If you look at most of these agencies, there seems to be one thing in common: They all have a leader who has a distinct personality and a public persona. They are all also all about the work.

Hopefully, these shops will continue to grow and flourish.  This is a business of personality. It always has been and it always should be. Personality here is defined as size, culture, creativity.  The business needs more choices.

I would like to hear your comments and share them with my readers.


  1. Hi Paul,

    Your points are well taken; unfortunately most agencies merge for financial and strategic purposes. They put little attention on how well the people and chemistry of the merged entities will be able to get along. It is the reason successful agencies who are considering a merger for strategic purposes look for a parent company who will give them the most autonomy, afraid that too much merge will create conflict.

    The only reason a merger can add one plus one equals two and a half is when both entities truly enjoy working with each other, that the key members of both agencies respect each other, and listen for what they have in common rather than what’s missing. This is best explored before signing on the dotted line.

    The issue is that money can corrupt creativity unless one is committed to ones creative vision of the agency and not the payoff, with a string of poloponies (for those who remember the Honeymooners).

    Mergers are marriages; it would be best to treat them with the same respect as if one was getting married, agencies would have a much better idea of what they would be stepping into before they say, "I do".

    Best Regards,
    Barney – www.LifeBalanceRecruiting.com

  2. First, Marty Puris single-handedly wrecked the A&P/LINTAS merger.

    Next, if any client truly wants an agency leader with personality, Jerry Della Femina is awaiting their call.

    Last, I am Jerry's CMO and if he's not around, call me. Bill Crandall

  3. Well put Paul.

    Agencies are losing their POVs whether through mergers or over-diversified and muddy service offerings - as their clients seem to be losing their own. It's hard to tell which came first, but here's hoping the pendulum can swing a little back to more of those shops with a quality product and some thought-leadership grounded in insights and delivered with impactful creativity.

    On a side note: read your coffee post as well - my apologies ;)

  4. Here is a comment you buried in your blog. "They all have a leader who has a distinct personality and a public persona. They are all also all about the work."

    I also feel that the business today is missing the giant personalities. During the 60's and 70's, the business had David Ogilvy. Bill Bernbach. Jim Jordan each representing a really different school of advertising. You could summarize each driving philosophy in one sentence. And Leo Burnett who led an agency that represented a fourth school.

    You are right - there are a lot of really talented and successful people engaged today, but where are all the mad men - the crazies. Where is George Lois who threatened to jump out the window if his client didn't buy his work. Where are the real characters about whom everyone could tell half a dozen "they really did that?" stories.

    I think the personalities as well as the agencies have gotten homogenized. Where are all the characters and mavericks. The egos you could count on erupting - loudly and often.

    Where are the folks that inspired the Apple Credo:

    Here’s to the crazy ones.
    The misfits. The rebels.
    The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.
    The ones who see things differently.
    They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.
    You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
    About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
    Because they change things.
    They invent. They imagine.
    They heal. They explore.
    They create. They inspire.
    Think different.
    They push the human race forward.
    Maybe they have to be crazy.
    How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
    Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people.
    While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
    Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.


I would welcome your comments, suggestions or anything you would like to share with me or my readers.

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