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.
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