Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What Happened To The Ad Agency Star System

Once upon an advertising time, from the nineteen twenties through the nineteen eighties and into the nineties, there were creative (and account, media and even research) stars.  Everyone in the business knew them.  In fact, many in the general public knew them as well. They produced well known work.  Then the holding companies (along with budget cutting clients) dismantled the star system beginning in the 90's.  They apparently no longer pay for (or want) creative stars to stand out. It is as if, somehow, having well known people would somehow diminish the anonymous owners of their agencies.

Way back when, if a client hired an agency, they knew what they were getting.  The reasons agency names contained the names of their founders or stars was because they were the attractions for clients.  Mary Wells, Sam Scali, Lester Wunderman, Fairfax Cone, Carl Ally and Bill Bernbach are good examples.  If a client hired Doyle, Dane, Bernbach it knew what it was getting. As those founders aged or retired, new names were added to the marquee but if the founders names remained, it was a reminder to clients of the heritage and philosophy of the agency.  But today, if one hires most of the network-owned ad agencies, well, who knows. 

Some stars did not have their names on the door – Al Hampel (Benton & Bowles/DMBB) or Lee Clow (Chiat/Day) – are good examples, but everyone knew them. (I remember one pitch where David McCall (McCaffrey & McCall) could not make a final pitch and the client told the agency that that is the reason they did not get the account. 

Unfortunately, the creative stars have either retired (Lee Clow among others), started their own agencies (David Angelo – David and Goliath; Mark DiMassimo - Dimassimo Goldstein) or just disappeared. Donny Deutsch is a perfect example of someone who simply moved on after selling his agency for a fortune. But his name remains on the door, which is a beacon to clients as to what the agency is about.

The holding companies have sucked their agencies dry, putting all their money into the mother lode.  The salaries to attract (and keep) super stars are just not there anymore, so the leaders or would-be leaders have gone elsewhere.  The great commercial directors have moved on to Hollywood (Ridley Scott, David Lynch).  Clients have significantly contributed by continuously decreasing the blended staff rates they are willing to pay their ad agencies.

Merging agencies is mostly a disaster.  The choices have become limited and, as a result, one plus one generally equals one point four.  As agencies have become merged they have become homogenized.  I am sure that with the merger of VML and Y&R or Wunderman into JWT, those agencies will continue to shrink; mergers don't necessarily solve their pre-merger problems.

Every creative business has stars.  Hollywood, literature, architecture, theater. There are stars in every creative endeavor including the law. It is what feeds the success of those businesses and attracts talent to them.  Advertising should be no different.

The advertising business needs super-stars. It needs people who can attract clients. It needs outstanding people.  Advertising needs people who have a point of view that clients want to hear. It needs people who have a point of view about both their work and the work.  It needs people who are excellent conceptually so that they can work in both traditional and digital. We need people who understand the business well enough to stand up for their work.  I have written about George Lois threatening to jump out of the window if a client didn’t buy his work (while this may be extreme, it makes a point).  We need more like him who believe in and stand up for their own work.   

We need people who are not afraid to say no to clients and, if they do say no, will not be punished for it.  (I know one story of a holding company which chastised one of its agency presidents for resigning an unprofitable and unhappy account because it needed the revenue.)

And, of course, we need clients who demand excellence and will pay for it.


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