Stephen Lepitak

A blog from The Drum's editor, Stephen Lepitak, covering reaction to events in media, social media, marketing, advertising and communications in general.

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Why have the ad agency networks just become ‘creative’ again?

I found it odd when Publicis Groupe’s (then) newly installed chief executive Arthur Sadoun started talking about making the business client-centric and I found it all the more odd when Mark Read said the same while revealing the future strategy for WPP this week. 

You mean advertising agencies were never client-centric before? 

Facepalm. 

WPP has chosen to ban the use of the word ‘digital’ within the company in a bid to embrace transformational creativity going forward. I suspect that’s pretty much what it’s been trying to do for the last decade (why buy AKQA in the first place?) Before this week WPP was a big, unwieldy beast that didn’t mind pitting its agency brands against one another as long as it brought it new business. That was a contentious decision – and I wonder if, by operating as one company, the network will continue to allow that? I suspect it will, which is at odds with the unifying approach it seems to be moving towards. 

What is great about the plan being implemented by WPP is that it does intend to recognise the needs of the client – and about time too. For too long clients have said that they struggle to keep on top of industry developments and the number of agency brands and which one truly suits what their company needs to progress, have hindered. Sometimes too much choice isn’t a good thing. 

WPP cannot be blamed for making hay while the sun shone though. It’s a business and through acquisition and scale it seemed indomitable. And while its profits were strong, why would it want to change direction? Now, with societal and industry issues forcing the business to adopt such an extreme turnaround plan, and a new logo to boot, it wants to be something else. To an extent. 

There’s no doubt none of this would be happening with Sir Martin Sorrell still at the helm. He believed that his way was still correct – and now we’ll never know if he was right. S4 Capital won’t be the next WPP but what is happening there is fascinating and digitally focused – sorry, transformationally focused? 

So what next for the holding companies?

With all the issues around transparency, media still needs to be dealt with. Will they bring creative and media back together? Not wholesale. GroupM has to figure itself out in the US – it’s still to really make the impact it’s threatened to for so long there. 

GroupM remains a UK powerhouse, where it represents 43% of all media spend according to WPP. But Read recognises WPP's need to grow its US presence and announced at its strategy day that £15m will be spent on creative investment in America next year. This will focus on growing its creative leadership (perhaps the hiring of a Nick Law-type group executive creative director?) and in ‘central new business teams and marketing initiatives’.

What the advertising industry has always had, and what it has forgotten despite all the talk, is that it is an industry of creative people aspiring to do great work. As the money grew and grew alongside media fees, so did the power of the suit, but really the industry has always had, and should always have, creativity at its core. It cannot forget that! However in the past decade at least, it could easily be argued that it has. 

As evidence: the recent World Cup of Ads project by BBH, to decide the greatest advert ever, didn’t have a single campaign from the last five years in the top 10. 

The role of the advertising industry’s plethora of awards will need to change too. They will need to prove success by the winners in their field – no longer are these events a jolly night out. They can be used as a differentiator among peers, and as such must be seen to do so going forward. 

It’s time to rethink the wheel – whether it is ‘digital’ or not. It’s the thinking at the top which needs to change first. And in Read and Sadoun that is prominent. 

Change is expected from Interpublic Group next year, while Omnicom, with its strong creative set up in BBDO, looks in good health still. MDC is a warning sign – whether that is acquired wholesale or broken up in a fire-sale (72&Sunny is still a prize asset that Dentsu Aegis would be a good fit for) I’m sure we’ll know soon enough. 

I understand that the intermediaries are also looking at their own offering and structures with an intention to change: while there are still plenty of pitches it seems the fees there too are declining. Consultancy services will be their answer no doubt but this points to a change in how pitches are being conducted going forward – maybe the direct-to-c-suite approach from Accenture et al is impacting there. 

And if that is the case what is the future of the marketer? Who is the client of tomorrow if the chief executive is choosing the agency partners? 

It’s the end of 2018, but it’s the start of a whole new era in the advertising industry. What doesn’t seem to be set to change is that, as always, no one really knows anything. Not really.

Stephen Lepitak is the editor of The Drum

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