I have received some sad news. Something bright and beautiful died last week. Or maybe to be more accurate has succumbed to a disease which has killed many in our industry. I am talking about the absorption of BBH into Publicis. While the global giant Publicis had held a large stake, BBH was until this announcement controlled by private shareholders – founders and working partners. To be fair to John Hegarty, he has contributed a lot to the advertising industry and its creativity. I interviewed him recently in London at the D&AD judging and have met him previously on several occasions. He may have even nodded to me when I was a young creative guy in London and he was a star! I can’t blame him selling off his shares and looking towards retirement. In itself, there is nothing wrong with Publicis. At least it had its origins in the French ad business rather than a wire company like WPP. But when I look for the great independents like my old agency Chiat/Day and Australia’s Mojo and Campaign Palace they are now just another arm on a worldwide group. Remember Monsoon in Singapore? An exciting new agency that died when it was swallowed up by Lintas. Will Crush or ManghamGaxiola go the same way?
The continual buy-overs to enlarge already huge advertising conglomerates has not benefitted the industry in my view. I am very cautious about mentioning “the good old days” as it tends to firmly establish me as a grandfather but I am frequently accosted by 40+ ad professionals who tell me the business is no longer fun. For the young entrant is may still seem exciting and the long hours are, for a time, seen as just part of the commitment.
The spilt of media buying and creative (who in their right minds see them as separate operations) led to the loss of the commission system. A long-established and accepted practice which meant the ads cost the client nothing and the agency was ensured of a good income. For the very young, I will explain. To put it simply, all media – television, radio, press, magazines – was obliged to give accredited advertising agencies (hence 4As) a 15% discount on all media purchased. Clients could not buy at this rate. Client also understood that 15% would be added to all print, television production and external bills. Agencies could do very well on this system especially if the client spent heavily on media and ran just a couple of TV commercials a year. The agency directors did well financially and the staff was well-rewarded.
The public offering of agency shares puts financial pressure on the agencies. As a shareholder, one naturally expects a good return each year on the investment. The directors of the holding company have a duty to ensure the group makes money. They will get fired otherwise. So they reduce the staff levels and push each CEO to bring in the bacon, more and more slices each year.
The wonderful thing about starting an ad agency (I did it twice) is that it is relatively inexpensive. You don’t need heavy equipment. Now we all can handle computers we don’t even need secretaries to type letters or artists in studios to prepare the artwork. We still need clients, of course, but the 15% will bring us in a nice income…oops, I forgot we have to negotiate a fee. The lower the better if we want to get the account. Still if we can struggle on for a few years and gain a couple of good accounts, we can sell out to that big wire company.
I started my career in London where Collett Dickenson Pearce, Abbott Mead Davies & Vickers, Boase Massimi Pollitt had started out. Internationals like Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather and Wasey Cambell-Ewald were still independent agencies. They have either gone or are owned by one of the same five groups.
Global corporations require global agencies although they all have glib phrases like think globally, act locally or words to that effect. But what do the agency professionals think? I know many people in Asia who were once high flyers in international agencies who have chucked it in. Take Stephen Mangham and Robert Gaxiola, for example. These guys had top well-paid jobs in management and creative, served in various parts of the world but they left to start their own despite the poor economy. They are now having more fun! And that’s what advertising offered me for most of my career (yes, I admit there were some depressing interludes under nightmare bosses).
The speed of the growth in digital media has thrown the industry into confusion. At first, it was small tech specialists knocking on doors selling SMS ads. Then a few agencies set up separate digital companies before finally realising like media planning and buying, the new media was all part and parcel promoting a client or brand.
The big boys are buying up any digital company who may hold the key to the future. We are currently in a state of flux which isn’t a bad thing. It may result in something better emerging.
My guess is, as our data collection becomes more and more refined, we’ll be less involved in ads as we know them today and more connected via a dialogue with each individual customer.
But let’s talk in general terms. Can we get back to the days when advertising was more fun? Unless the agency staff buy back the shares, I can’t see things getting better in the big-name agencies. Personally, I believe independence encourages more innovation and less conformity. I’d like to see more boutique agencies spring up, supported by major advertisers who give them the size of budget essential if the agency is to pay for top talent.
I only caught the tail end of the Mad Men era so I didn’t drink whisky in the office or have an affair with a secretary, but I hate to tell you that even 25 years ago, the ad industry was more fun. Talking to the real old timers, we hear why they loved the sixties and seventies when working in Singapore or other markets.
I hope during the next decade we will see changes that will result in more people telling me that working in advertising is a buzz and any other job would be an anti-climax. We, who are old and grey, experienced that. It would be a shame if you missed out.