May 28, 2013

Time For Sorrell To Go

There is a small group of men who have ruined the advertising industry.

They have made it leaner and meaner. They have made it more efficient. They have made it more productive. They have squeezed all the fat out of it. They have also squeezed all the life out of it.

They have replaced ideas with data. They have replaced value with efficiency.

They are accountants and investors and financial wise guys. The one thing they are not is advertising people.

Advertising was once an industry of craftsmen and craftswomen. Industrious people would start their own agencies. There were dozens of independent, entrepreneurial agencies in every major city. The largest agency in the U.S. had a 1.5% share of market. Today four giant globalized monstrosities control over 70% of U.S. advertising.

The advertising business has been consolidated into submission. As Dave Trott says, we have become an industry of bank managers.

Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, the world's largest advertising agency holding company, gave a talk in London recently.  According to website The Drum, he told the attendees...
'The medium, or media, has become "more important" than the message...'
This is the grotesque outlook of a publisher who thinks the paper is more important than the writing. It is the delusion of an impresario who thinks the instruments are more important than the music. It is the chirping of a philistine who thinks the paint is more valuable than the painting,

This is not acceptable. Sorrell and his clones who head up other agency holding companies need to find new businesses to rape. Their day is over. Their time has passed. They have been a massive, tragic failure. They have enriched themselves and impoverished an industry.

It’s time for these people to go.


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Neil Charles said...

Normally your writing is spot-on but this feels off the mark to me. It's very close to reminiscing about a time when advertising was more fun because it could get away with wasting a lot of clients' money.

Disclosure - I'm a WPP employee (eventually, somewhere up the chain) but who isn't? I've worked for small agencies too. It's much more fun but they keep getting bought by WPP.

"This is the grotesque outlook of a publisher who thinks the paper is more important than the writing. It is the delusion of an impresario who thinks the instruments are more important than the music"

Great imagery, but this is where I'd disagree. It's the outlook of a publisher who publishes 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, or of a music industry that gives us American Idol. Less creative? Certainly. Giving the people what they want? Well they're buying in huge numbers, just like clients flock to big agencies. Complaining about it is like the highly talented niche acoustic artist, moaning that he can't get a break from a major record label.

What I would like to see, is the playing field levelled on pricing by competition legislation. It's not such an issue for creative development, but in media buying, the pooling of large clients' budgets to negotiate deals with media owners should be outlawed as anti-competitive. Each client gets a deal based on their own ad budget, and then we'll see if smaller shops can stand up in a fair fight.

Sell! Sell! said...

Spot-on Bob. Bravo.

vinny warren said...

Sorry Neil, you're just wrong and Bob is dead right. Everyone I know who works for a holding company is miserable. Why? Because it's ALL about money and f**k all else, frankly. Why would it be any other way, given that they are all public companies. Consequently their output is unspeakably dull and nobody is having any fun.

Neil Charles said...

Agree with everything you've just written, except about me being wrong!

What should an advertising agency be about? Advertising agencies exist to make money for their clients, not to have fun, or to entertain the public with interesting adverts.

If more interesting (and overall, more expensive) adverts make more money for the client and are more fun to make at the same time, that's great, but we're obviously failing to make that case.

The big groups have been so successful by stripping fat that clients don't value, away from the business. Either we make the case that it wasn't 'fat', or we accept the dull bottom-line driven world we find ourselves in. Any other argument is just asking clients "please go back to paying us to be inefficient, because it was more fun."

Jason Hartley said...

I have to agree with Neil. Everyone you know is not everyone, and it also doesn't include the clients who engage the big agencies. Just like small agencies, some big ones are good and creative (the data help that, not hurts), while some are bad and misuse data. The original post smacks a bit of "kids these days," though I know from reading this blog that the author generally is for the universal (good work should sell stuff) vs. fads (social will change the world!), which is a good thing.

vinny warren said...

Neil, where are all these Idol and Dan Brown sized hits produced by holding company agencies? I wish.

Nobody, certainly not me, is arguing that ad agencies exist for any purpose other than to sell clients' products. And not all agencies back in the day were bloated behemoths. Any more than client organizations were all inefficient mediocrities. Just most of them, probably, because that's just how it has always been.

Over time "stripping fat" became "hollowing out" and now we're left with dried up husks.

"If more interesting (and overall, more expensive) adverts make more
money for the client and are more fun to make at the same time, that's
great, but we're obviously failing to make that case." >>> What's this WE? Speak for yourself pal!

Martin Weigel said...

WPP Group and Sorrell would be an irrelevance if a) there were not clients who wanted what they're selling and b) folk happy to take a paycheque from its galaxy of companies. That surely should give us all pause for thought. I'd love to vilify Mr. Sorrell, Bob. But if our industry has been impoverished, that's everyone's fault. I include myself. I was for many years a cog in the WPP machine.

Sonny said...

Long ago in S & Saatchi hay days an executive said to me " I won't recommend radio because it is too labor intensive and we can't make money with it" It was always easier to just call the few network reps and put it together.

Neil Charles said...

"Neil, where are all these Idol and Dan Brown sized hits produced by holding company agencies? I wish."

In the UK? All of the car ads for a start, with the possible exception of Honda and their last good one was ages ago. Dull, functional, samey, cost efficient adverts. Like Idol contestants or Dan Brown books, they do a job, they're all the same and it's easy to make a new one.

"What's this WE? Speak for yourself pal!"

The Royal We. We the industry. We the people who'd like to do more fun stuff but can't persuade clients to pay for it.

MTarpy said...

Here, here! I just got out of Razorfish (Publicis), and the decisions all seemed to revolve around what would allow us to return the most money to Publicis.

vinny warren said...

I'm not sure I follow you Neil. What are you saying?

Idol and Dan Brown are massive cultural and commercial hits. You or I might not particularly dig them but that doesn't detract from their undeniable success in the marketplace.

And boring samey car ads are nothing new. But you'll notice who did the least samey car ads in the UK in recent years - independent creatively led ad agency Wieden and Kennedy. No accident there.

Bob's point, i think, was that Sorrell et al have sucked the money, the fun - and just about everything else they could suck - out of an industry that is best done by smaller groups of people who are passionate about what they do. Something that seems undeniably and obviously true to me. To the point where arguing that point risks making one look ill-informed.

Neil Charles said...

That's exactly what I'm saying. Idol and Dan Brown are huge hits and have absolutely no artistic merit whatsoever.

Cheap, efficient, dull ads, with no artistic merit whatsoever, produced by big advertising agencies are huge hits with clients, or they wouldn't keep buying them.

You're arguing that ads are "best done by smaller groups of people who are passionate about what they do". Most clients must beg to differ, or WPP and Publicis wouldn't exist. I don't disagree that this means the fun is sucked out of agencies, but it's a case of persuade clients of the smaller agency argument, or put up with the big groups.

Sell! Sell! said...

If I may, I think what's going on here is that you appear to be at cross-purposes with your metaphor. Neil, you are saying that WPP's 'audience' in respect to the Dan Brown etc. metaphor, are clients. I think Vinny is talking about the ads not being a hit with the 'audience' meaning the consumer.

Neil, there is truth in the fact that the big network agencies have hit on a formula that appears to keep the marketing directors of large corporate companies happy: low cost, happy to do what they are told, produce notionally 'safe' work and generally not upset anyone.

Unfortunately this is at odds with what it really takes to do great things in advertising.

They are, I guess, successful businesses by the simplest notion of what makes for a successful business. But they are extremely poor advertising agencies, by any meaningful measure of what makes for good advertising agencies.

vinny warren said...

I'm not in a position to comment on the cost or efficacy of UK car ads. Most car ads are dull until you're in the market for a car. but I know from experience it's as cheap or as expensive to produce an exciting car ad as it is to produce a dull one.

because ours is ultimately an executional industry. execution is the only thing consumers react to. or not. And the best execution is invariably done by smaller teams of highly motivated individuals. Just is. And it involves annoying things like craft skills and artistry. What's your favorite ad? I bet it's full of those things.

But like I said earlier, most things are crap. It's just that I choose not to spend my life making crap and being miserable.

Chacun a son gout as they say in Publicis.

Jim said...

I am not sure the big groups are working. It's interesting to note as agency groups get bigger the average length of tenure of a client has shortened. Why do they get fired quicker? is that a good thing?

According to Campaign last week the tenure of an agency's client fell from over 7 years in 1984 to now when it is 2 years and 4 months.

There also seems to be a huge gap between Marketing Directors knowledge of the Ad Agency world and the Ad agencies knowledge of it's world.

If you asked a CD if they were in charge of a budget which agency would they appoint they'd probably know in a flash and they'd even know which team they'd like too and why. No need for a pitch even.

Ask a MKt Dir - they need match makers, pitch after pitch, procurement and even after all that their relationship lasts just over 2 years and 4 month.

It appears to me that there are lots of Mkt Dirs that don't have the knowledge, expertise or know how on how to select an agency, so they end up with making mistakes. Then jumping ship 18 months or so later and the account leaves a few months later.

The smarter ones do look out for the independent agencies but they must be few and far between.

Then the groups offer a lot of money for the independent and it's too much to refuse and then they have to hit revenue targets to get their buy outs, so they have to change focus from quality work to financial targets.


Cecil B Demille said...

This is one of those times when, having worked for a holding company and weaseled my way out, I can actually offer useful perspective.

The example I'll use is flawed, but I hope you get the point. When your car breaks down, do you take it to a mechanic or an accountant? When you want a better computer, do you go to a computer seller, or an accountant?

The point being, accountants have a job – accounting. When they're given the reins to a business, they will run it like accountants run everything. By the numbers. Advertising, like many other things, is done best when reading between the lines. Value isn't always about dollars. Some ideas are far more valuable than what you can sell them for.

When the accountants – used here as a generalization for holding companies – took over advertising, they brought their own definition of value that was easy to understand. Dollars and cents. And we in the industry either fell for it or were complicit in implementing it. Those who resisted started their own shops.

Agencies need to make money, yes, but when they were the masters of their own purse strings, the work was better and, lo and behold, they were still in business. I seriously doubt – accountants being what they are – that the client is realizing any real savings in the new order. They're simply being itemized into unconsciousness. There are new mouths to feed. Social. Data. Brand ambassadors and such drivel.

Advertising isn't magic, but it's also not accounting. When was the last time you met a college kid who really wanted to go into advertising? It's been a while for me. When you take the passion out of an industry, the passionate go elsewhere.

Cecil B Demille said...

The whole "pitch process" has also become an aberration of what it is supposed to be. Rather than an agency going after a business it really wants, the accountants see big numbers and send them in, tongues wagging. The opportunity cost of creative time and effort and so on is a pittance to them because, generally speaking, they can wring more hours out of the creatives they have – especially if they're miserable working for their current client.

The entirety of the advertising agency is cheapened. We're in the business of knowing that you get what you pay for, and yet we allow ourselves and our work to be given away for free at some mindless pitch for an account. Bonus misery that the account is usually run by a marketing director who's been trained to expect that, every two years or so, he can look at a zillion new pieces of creative and agencies will beg to show stuff to him.

We've allowed the bar to be set. Now we have to live with it. Any ideas on how we can reset it? I'm all ears.

Sheriff Shooter said...

oh you should look at the kids at portfolio night, being told their work doesn't meet the standards of our 'creative' industry

Guest said...

how can you not love the arrogance and BS of Sorrell's statement:
"and we are more fun to work with,” he added."?
to me that's exhibit A of wall-street-esque babble. major suck-up, no common sense.

the fact is that all the praise goes to independent networks who
continuously claim top prizes, top clients and are all living a huge-salary life: Wieden, Droga, Forsman, Goodby, Karmarama, Kolle Rebbe, Mother...
they are drivers of our business that sorrells of the world are just desperately trying to milk. nothing more than that.

I think sorrells are prime example of what Louis C.K. called "non-contributing zero".

bob hoffman said...


I'm sure there's plenty of blame to go around. But, I'm sorry Martin, I can't help but believe that Sorrell and his ilk are more responsible for the depressing state of our industry than you are.

Martin Weigel said...

Perhaps... though you haven't seen the reel of total crap that over the years I have helped into the world!

But a thought occurs to me. Perhaps every creative industry has the same problem and complaint - i.e. that money takes precedence over the work (whatever form it takes) and that the accountants have taken over and sucked the life out of the game.

Certainly independent bookstores and publishers would be quick to identify Jeff Bezos as the enemy of creative integrity.

And I'm sure we could find the same complaint amongst independent music labels, gaming companies, restauranteurs, and so on and on.

Perhaps there's just some unhealthy power law at work that means that the champions of good in any creative industry are always doomed to battle the juggernauts of avarice. And that the market for crap - or at least the mediocre - will always outstrip the market for quality.

I don't want to be an apologist for these outfits and people. But perhaps we actually need them. Progress always need an enemy.

bob hoffman said...

Funny you should say that. I'm writing a post about it for next week. My contention is going to be that all human endeavors gravitate toward bigness.

Haggersnash said...

Having worked for both global network agencies and independents, I prefer the latter and agree with your article.

However, you forgot something when you wrote: "Industrious people would start their own agencies. There were dozens of independent, entrepreneurial agencies in every major city." Almost all those people sold out to the holding companies.

Peter Levitan said...

Advertising is a business. Most ad guys actually do not get this. I hung out with a new agency CEO the other day that was also the ECD. He is trying to learn business on the fly. The deal here is that agencies have to be both creative / idea driven and have business skills.

The magins in advertising are just too slim right now to not be good at both. It really sin't one or the other but a smart blend. Most agencies do not even have a business plan.

Jim said...

All business tends towards monopoly. When it gets close the State intervenes and breaks them up. Then the tendency starts again. It 'could' be a good thing but rarely is.

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IainH said...

On days like this, I always think of the genius that was Gossage.

He didn't complain about the status quo: he got off his ass, did things differently and came out on top.

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