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Stack of Books

oil on canvas
22 x 20 in

Penny Machines
oil on canvas
23¾ x 29¾ in

Stack of Books
oil on canvas
30 x 24 in

Seven Suckers
oil on canvas
19 x 23 in

Twin Jackpots
oil on canvas
30 x 46 in

oil on canvas
20 x 26 in

Cake Slices
oil on canvas
20 x 16 in

Super-agencies: coordinating the best idea at the best price

Formed initially in response to the pressures of consolidation and to house conflicting accounts, the super-agencies – or what we at WPP prefer to call the parent companies – really represent the full-service agencies of the 21st century. Long before the phrase ‘integrated communications’ came into common use, integrated communications were exactly what such full service agencies provided. Over time – and as a result of two pressures – these departments became unbundled. Clients sought to reduce costs and the media and craft specialists within agencies, feeling under-recognised as members of a mother agency’s department, looked for greater recognition and reward in free-standing, specialist companies of their own. Importantly, this involved a split between the creative agency and the media agency, reducing costs from approximately 15% of gross media costs to about 12%. Good media people left and started independents such as Carat, Media Planning Group, CIA and Western International, which grew organically and by acquisition.

The same pattern was seen among packaging, market research, merchandising, PR and other specialist skills. Many such companies have now been re-absorbed into the super-agencies, but in an inter-dependent or autonomous form. Strong media or marketing services specialists do not like, understandably, to be subsumed under advertising professionals, particularly when they have enjoyed a taste of freedom.

As the new specialist media investment management agencies have grown in power, new media technologies have developed and the media agencies have developed strong client relationships. The creative agencies have become increasingly discomforted and called for re-integration. This is not possible in our view; the toothpaste is out of the tube. Media agencies have declared UDI and won their independence. They will not report again to account, planning or creative management. Similarly, media agencies should not develop traditional creative capabilities, even under the guise of digital. If clients want better co-ordination between creative and media agency – which in some cases needs to be improved – the best way to do it is by housing the media planners in the creative agency, but with them remaining employed by the media agency. The creative agencies have paid a heavy price for ignoring the importance of media. The medium is increasingly becoming more important or as important as the message.

Today, the new super-agencies have a big opportunity. Clients still require, first and foremost, creativity and great creative ideas. Second, but increasingly, they want better co-ordination (although it is no good co-ordinating a lousy idea). Finally, they want it at the lowest possible price. The challenge is therefore to provide the best ideas in the best co-ordinated or integrated way at the lowest cost. Until recently, this might have been seen as a fad, but now the concept may be taking root. Four major multinational clients – three of them with origins or significant parts of their business in Asia – invited four or five of the largest holding or parent companies to present for their global advertising and marketing services business. In all cases the presentations included advertising and media investment management, and direct – and in one case research. All these clients were looking for an integrated global solution to their needs and for groups that can offer alternative solutions – potentially a weakness of the single network.

In all four pitches, a group or parent company solution was selected. WPP tribes were successful in two of them. In the third and fourth, we were constrained by significant conflict issues. The CEO of one eliminated parent company in the first round of the first pitch declared that this was not a trend.

After at least four similar pitches, he has changed his mind and is pursuing a holding company approach. In addition, many other group pitches have taken place – particularly in pharmaceuticals, and Public Relations & Public Affairs – that have been under the trade papers’ radar. The only issue preventing this from being a trend is whether clients can be convinced of the benefits.

The middle of the road is becoming an increasingly difficult place to be, with traffic coming from both directions. Agencies excluded from the super-agency pitches because they lack the scale and resources must be feeling uncomfortable. Our business is polarising between big and small.

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