}

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Is Ad Agency Culture, Anyway?

In mid-December, I wrote about how ad agencies could grow and retain their culture.  I got a direct email from someone who felt that the concept of agency culture was, in his words, "bullshit".  I couldn't disagree more.


From 1966 to 1988 Philip Dougherty was the New York Times advertising columnist.  It was long before the internet and social media.  Phil was a powerful and influential icon in the business.  He had previously, as I recall, been a real estate columnist. But for 22 years he pursued advertising with a vengeance.   Not long before he died, he and I had lunch.  He made a very interesting comment and to me which has stayed with me.

At the time, Chiat/Day was one of the hottest ad agencies in the country.  Its New York Creative Director, Bill Hamilton, had just moved from Chiat to Ogilvy.  Phil’s observation was that Ogilvy and Chiat had to have similar cultures; after all, if the creative director of one could go to the other, he reasoned, wrongly in my opinion, that they must be similar. (I wonder if the person who emailed me knew Phil?). What he missed was that Ogilvy wanted to become more like Chiat and hired Bill to do just that.

Ogilvy was huge, worldwide and still very much under the influence of David Ogilvy, who was, at the time, semi-retired, but still occasionally active.  Ogilvy was formal and had many rules, most of which were spelled out in his seminal book Ogilvy On Advertising.  Chiat was the diametric opposite – they had few rules, other than to do the unexpected. At Ogilvy, they still wore suits and ties, and at Chiat, jeans were the norm. Jay Chiat, could not have been more different than David Ogilvy.  And the agencies were very different from each other.  But Ogilvy hired Bill Hamilton in an effort to do the kinds of breakthrough creative that Bill had fostered at Chiat/Day.

At that time Ogilvy hired big agency trained and very smart people.  New employees, for the most part, came from the best colleges and the biggest accounts. Chiat was different in that it hired passionate advertising people and didn’t care where they came from or what their background was. Chiat's people were driven by the creative work.  Chiat believed in its work and often sold breakthrough creative; Ogilvy, while it did excellent work, was much more conservative. Like their founders, their cultures were very different.

In the seventies, eighties and nineties, there were many different agency cultures. There were highly strategic agencies, many driven by research (no planning then, except Chiat/Day, starting in the eighties) – Grey, Compton, Leo Burnett.  There were very media savvy agencies - Ted Bates, Cunningham & Walsh, Dancer, Fitzgerald, Sample. (Dancer and Compton were both bought by the Saatchi brothers and merged together to form Saatchi & Saatchi.) There were creatively driven agencies – Wells Rich Greene; Doyle Dane Bernbach; Scali McCabe Sloves.  And there were tons of smaller, boutique agencies – Delehanty, Kurnit & Geller (DKG); Levine Huntley Schmidt and Beaver; Ally & Gargano;, Della Femina, to name just a few. Chiat/Day would have fallen into the creative or boutique agencies as would have the original Deutsch. 

While each agency hired some of the same people, each of these agencies had very distinct personalities and persona, often driven by their leaders who were well known, charismatic and very public.  When clients hired them, they were hired for their expertise in specific areas.

In those days, ad agency culture was defined by its leaders; most of whom were well known and fairly public.  Their philosophies determined how each agency operated.  The culture they established pervaded the entire agency.  For instance, David Ogilvy was very proper, as was his agency.  The popular perception was that creatively driven agencies could not be strategic and the strategic agencies were not creative (both perceptions were wrong, in my opinion). As an aside, the great Alvin Hampel, creative director of D'Arcy, McManus, Benton & Bowles (DMB&B) came up with the wonderful positioning line, "It isn't creative unless it sells", which was a great apologia for their effective, but less than scintillating work. 

When the buying frenzy of agencies started in the late seventies through the mid-1980’s, ad agency cultures started to become homogenized. The holding companies purchased agencies  and put them together, not for creative kinship or philosophy, but for financial savings and efficiencies. I have written about why in many of these mergers why one plus one, instead of equaling two or more actually ended up equaling about one point five. Today, one of the hardest issues facing the big network agencies is to define their own culture and positioning and to set themselves apart from other similar agencies.

The differences between most of the big agencies has become, at best, subtle.

There are still a handful of big agencies which have their own well defined persona.  One of the best examples of this is BBDO, which has maintained its positioning and culture for many decades.  Many smaller agencies have well defined cultures.  Jay Chiat had one of my favorite all time quotes about Chiat/Day, "I wonder how big we will get before we get bad."  That about sums it up.

13 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great post, Paul. Sadly, I believe the industry is suffering from a surplus of administrators and a lack of leaders. I recall a great Goldsmith/Jeffrey house ad, which said roughly...Come to an agency where the names on the door aren't just names on the door.

      Delete
  2. Great post Paul. Sadly I think the presence of holding companies has disrupted this to a large degree at many shops. I think of my experience at Lowe, formerly a wonderful global creative shop in it's heyday as perfect example. It's a credit to the BBDO's, W+K's, Goodby's of the world that they strive to retain this in the face of such obstacles. In the face of such industry "sameness" these days, agency culture can and still does matter...especially as it relates to attracting and retaining the best and brightest who want to do great work. Remind me never to work at the shop whose senior executive replied "bullshit" to your initial post ;) Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Kieran. The agencies you mentioned work hard to keep their cultures in tact. But it really matters to top management.

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post, Paul. Made me think about the different cultures I experienced first hand or a close second. Between my older brother and me, we experienced BBDO, Bates, Burnett, Scali, DDB and Lord Gellar, all in the 80's. The differences were astounding, both positively and negatively. Most of my agency career was spent at Leo, where culture was job #2, and determined how we all did job #1. Too few leaders today focus on cultural anything beyond the standard bromides. It'll be interesting to see how agencies like Rosetta (which had a great founder's culture) retain what made them successful with Gen 2.0 leaders

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Philip; You hit on something important. Part of second generation management is to be sure to understand what is already there and to possibly improve upon it. But it takes a lot of work and persistence.

      Delete
  5. I will always believe that agency culture is set by the CEO, by way of his or her personal example for others. And the cultural key things, which I believe provide a common thread among the greatest of agencies both large and small, that set such leaders apart are character, thoughtfulnes and fairness toward others, and good manners. That's it. Bill Crandall

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bill: It goes way beyond the CEO. Look at how many agencies tried to change by bringing in new CEOs and failed. The take over of Lintas by Ammirati & Puris is a perfect example. Very hard to change the spots on a leopard. Grey is one of the few agencies to succeed. Culture encompasses many aspects including mission, creative philosophy, approach to planning and strategy, talent management, etc. Those things are often endemic to a culture. If a CEO fails to fully grasp and embrace - or, on the contrary, have a well thought out plan - to change it doesn't work. It goes beyond character. There is a lot of skill and true caring involved to nurture or change a culture and it goes way beyond the CEO.

      Delete
  6. Hi Paul ... Don't know why you chose to focus only on "character" among the few other traits I mentioned in my post, but it seems like you're actually agreeing with me. To wit, you mentioned Grey as an outstanding example of agency cultural transition and I totally agree with you. But there is only one clear reason why this happened and continues today ... and his name is Jim Heekin, Global CEO of Grey. And knowing how you think ...No, I am not sucking up to Jim for a job at Grey. They're doing just fine without me. LOL, Bill

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for commenting a good blog for ! Ad Agencies Ad Agencies .

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for Posting a good blog for ! Ad Agencies Ad Agencies .

    ReplyDelete

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

 
Creative Commons License
.