Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Have Agencies Gotten Too Big?

No matter what anyone says, advertising, in all its forms - broadcast, print, web, social, etc. -  remains a creative business.  Clients hire agencies for their work.  I think size does matter. There are too many agencies which are too big to create consistently good work. No agency is always good.  But smaller agencies seem to have the ability to control their output.

Remember Jay Chiat’s prescient quote, “I wonder how big we will get before we get bad.”  There is much truth there.

As agencies have grown, the work seems to become blander.  At the big, worldwide agencies, somehow the work gets diffused because there are too many cooks in the broth.  I suspect that is the reason why the smaller and mid-size shops are attracting major worldwide clients like Coke, Kraft and some of the big automobile companies. Clients understand this and there seems to be a trend towards hiring smaller agencies for certain assignments.

Most accounts and brands are local. There are only a few truly global brands and accounts.  Those accounts may need a worldwide creative infrastructure.  But in most cases, left to their own devices, each of the local agencies are quite capable of solving their regional or local clients’ problems without the help of the worldwide people. The job of the worldwide people should be to insure consistency of message and branding; nothing more.  Based on what I hear from my candidates, global people often seem to only complicate.

I hear about worldwide group gang-bangs where the worldwide person from, say, Asia, interferes with work which is being done in Latin America.  So, instead of the final presentation being about the work, it becomes about managing the network.  The work takes a back seat to the egos involved.


We keep reading that clients simply want agencies to integrate and be able to develop 360° solutions.  This should be easy enough.  There are some agencies like Deutsch and Kaplan Thaler that have figured out how to do this fairly seamlessly.  But, unfortunately, in most places, instead of simplifying the solution, the work gets caught up in the complications of the various big agency silos.  Clients constantly say that they are disappointed with the inability of their general agencies to assume digital and other communications responsibilities.  In fact, everything I read says that the big corporations are begging their agencies to do simple 360° solutions, but they are having trouble getting their agencies to execute.

It isn't that the big agencies don't want to integrate.  It is that they just can't.  First, the creatives who do television unfortunately don’t necessarily want to do digital and events and promotions.  Second, the silos which have been built up are difficult to tear down – the holding companies have too much invested in each individual company and the agencies get caught up in the internal politics of their own silos.  There is no incentive for cooperation among the groups. 

Add to this the fact that a creative department in the larger agencies is made up of dozens (or more) of copywriters, art directors, producers, strategists, planners and others.  Managing this group requires a creative director to become an administrator and an arbitrator.  The conundrum is that the CD or ECD became who he or she is because of talent and creativity.  Unfortunately, once they become directors, their talent and creativity get buried in the bureaucracy of managing their creative department. Getting everyone in the department on the same page is time consuming and difficult. One of the most successful creative directors once came to me and said, “Find me a big job where I will still be working at my board.”  He was right.

There is a lot of really bland advertising out there; no wonder clients don’t respect their agencies. No question, clients often copy-test good work to death.  But there are still a few agencies which actually fight with their clients for good work.

There are very few “creative” agencies of any size.  BBDO, Deutsch, Goodby and Wieden have managed to grow and keep the focus on their work.  Then there is/are a whole host of kind of mid-size creative shops like Mother and BBH and Kaplan Thaler and Strawberry Frog, among others.  But there are fewer of them today compared to just a decade or so ago when there were slews of those shops (Ally & Gargano; Ammirati & Puris, Wells, Rich, Greene;  Scali, McCabe Sloves; Levine, Huntly Schmidt and Beaver; Messner et al. to name just a few).  They have been gobbled up and are all lost. 

Pity.  Where are the agencies that fight for their work?  There is a famous story of when legendary adman George Lois was presenting a campaign and a client questioned it, he opened the window in his office and threatened to jump out unless the client bought it.  The client did.  True or not, we need more conviction.

One solution to agency problems is to find a new structure.  When Grey went to the village system some ten years ago, it was a brilliant idea.  It may have been flawed, but it was on the right track.  For those not familiar with it, Grey was broken down into eight “villages” or groups, each run by an account person, a creative director and a planner.  They were responsible for the work, the new business, the P&L and the personnel.  It made the work better and the agency more profitable.  And it created a sense of mission and healthy competition among the groups. Perhaps the business should revisit that model again. 

We need ways of making big agencies smaller, more responsive and more manageable.   And most of all, they need to be more creative.


  1. Well, with the four holding companies controlling 70% of advertising jobs, big has definitely inhibited freedom which in turn inhibits creativity.

    I also think, ironically, that "small" has hindered creativity as well. Countless man-hours are spend on apps nobody (outside of our industry) cares about.

    As an industry we are focused on the wrong things.

  2. I think this is oversimplified. Most big agencies have great creative talent. The "blanding" down of creative work is primarily the result of clients who are risk-averse. Good creative ideas get killed by a combination of review by committee, focus groups and copy testing.

    Clients that allow agencies to do great work have a culture that embraces risk, has a vision and a leader who allows their agency's creativity to rise above a marketing world ruled by fear. That's why Apple's creative work typically rose above most of the rubbish out there. We'll see what happens post Steve Jobs.


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

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