Best of the Week: Why agencies can't tell clients what they do
The more agencies try to sound different the more they end up sounding the same
Welcome to Unmade, mostly written on Friday at beautiful Sisters Beach, Tasmania.
Happy Darwin Day. Here’s hoping that believers in evolutionary biology don’t suffer any persecution at the hands of Christians while celebrating the great naturalist’s 213th birthday. Maybe we should pass some sort of science freedom law, just in case.
Today’s writing soundtrack: Led Zeppelin IV, via Triple M Classic Rock. Playing it from vinyl (and on somewhat scratched vinyl at that) is a counterintuitive choice for a digital station played via smart speaker, but it works for me. I miss crackles.
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This week, I’ve been thinking about communications agencies, big and small.
The big came to mind because the global communications holding groups are beginning to release their financial results for the 2021 calendar year.
Over in the US, Omnicom reported its numbers on Wednesday, our time. IPG shared its numbers yesterday. The week before came an update from Publicis Groupe, headquartered in Paris.
Dentsu will update the Tokyo stock exchange this coming week.
And Havas Group’s French parent company Vivendi, the London-based WPP and Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital will all share their results over the next fortnight or so too.
So I’ll hold off on the comparisons until all the reports are in.
For now, as an aside, here’s a quick question about Omnicom: Can you spot which major agency it forgot to include in the investor presentation this week? Don’t scroll below the image until you’ve tried to work out who’s missing.
Spotted it? In case you haven’t, let me give you another clue. It’s one of the agencies in their most important segment, covering media and creative. Like they say on TV: Let’s zoom and enhance…
They forgot DDB. I imagine boss Marty O’Halloran might have a view on that.
But like I say, I’ll save drilling into the Omnicom report until the rest have been released too.
I’ve also been thinking about the local brands this week too. CHE Proximity, the Omnicom agency taken to local prominence thanks to the efforts of the now departed Chris Howatson and Ant White, has rebooted as CHEP Network under Justin Hind.
And big agency refugee Pete Bosilkovski, a former CEO of three large networks - Clemenger BBDO, Y&R and Leo Burnett - set out his shingle this week for his new agency, It’s Friday.
That’s not to mention WPP’s media agency Essence unveiling a new national leadership team this week. With Pat Crowley at the helm. I wonder if he can bring some of the old Ikon zing to the merged AKQA-Ikon-Essence.
One thing should be screamingly obvious, and has been for a while.
There are too many agencies. Just look again at that Omnicom table. And that’s just for one holding company.
As fast as holding companies merge their multiple brands, disaffected executives like Bosilkovski, White and Howatson walk out of the door and start new ones.
I cannot think of another business sector where so many brands offer what is basically the same product, yet nobody has dominant market share. For a while it had seemed like the technology barriers - particularly for media startups - would make it too hard for new startups to reach scale, but in the end the prices came down and now it’s pretty much a free for all.
And the more agencies try to differentiate themselves, the more they seem the same. Whether you work agency side, as a marketer, or somewhere else, how many agencies outside of your direct relationships do you have an informed point of view on what they stand for?
Owning a point of difference which is also worth having is really hard.
In the early days of media agencies as a separate discipline, Carat had a market position as being the ones who were best at buying media aggressively cheaply for their clients. It wasn’t their offical slogan, but “Gorillas with calculators” was how they were known. At the other end of the spectrum, PHD were first to make a name for adding brainpower to the equation and getting better campaigns.
Now though, every global media agency needs to find a different way of saying that they buy at a good price, but also build media schedules strategically. Creative agencies should have more than that to differentiate themselves but often seem to have less.
Take what are, by my estimate, the top 40 or so agencies in Australia. (And I apologise: I bet I’ve forgotten somebody big.) This week I visited their websites to see how they describe themselves to the world. Some have a very obvious tagline. In others you’ve got to puzzle it out, or pick one slogan from several.
And some prefer to talk about themselves, not what they can do for the client. Let’s start with perhaps the least informative home page of the lot:
Mindshare - “We are a Global Media Agency network”. Noted. So what?
It’s no less inspiring than how Clemenger BBDO talks about itself:
Well done, Clems. But how about focusing your search snippet on what you can do for clients? Remember when BBDO was all about “The Work. The Work. The Work”?
Going back to Mindshare, you don’t learn much more when you dive further into the website. “We drive Good Growth for our clients through Precisely Human Intelligence and the Intentional Use of Media,” is the headline on the Mindshare services page. And we’ll come back to the humans shortly.
Make sense of that if you can, although the word “growth” is a popular slogan elsewhere too:
Wavemaker - “There is always a better way to grow”
Wunderman Thompson - “We Inspire Growth for Ambitious Brands”
Initiative - “Built to grow brands through culture”
Essence - “Data-driven growth for transformational marketers”
DDB - “Driving Unreasonable Growth for our clients”
PHD - “The power of imagination for disproportionate growth”
Whether running a creative or media pitch, it’d be hard to see much difference in philosophy from those six, wouldn’t it?
And if you don’t want unreasonable or disproportionate growth, how about an unfair share?
303 Mullen Lowe - “A hyper-bundled, multi-disciplined agency. Built to deliver clients an unfair share of attention.”
Then comes the change and transformation posse:
FutureBrand - “A global brand transformation company”
M&C Saatchi - “We Navigate, Create and Lead Meaningful Change”
Publicis Worldwide: “We lead the change”
Leo Burnett - “We are a HumanKind behaviour change company”
I ask this in the most respectful way possible: What the fuck is HumanKind behaviour change? Still, Leos and Mindshare are not the only agencies talking about those humans:
Starcom - “The Human Experience Company”
Carat - “A more human approach to brand building”
Ogilvy - “We inspire brands and people to impact the world”
Then there’s lots of stuff that matters:
Havas media - “Media that matters”
Special Group - “We work to make things that matter”
Host/Havas creative - “Making brands matter”
Hearts & Science - “Your brand in moments that matter”
Hearts & Science has such an underpowered slogan considering the agency’s brilliant name - a summary of an agency that merges creativity with smart use of data.
And there are the connected agencies:
BWM Isobar - Creative brands. Connected experience
VMLY&R - We create connected brands
And the agencies that reckon they do better:
OMD - Better decisions, faster
UM - Better science. Better art. Better outcomes
I must admit I hadn’t noticed until doing this exercise yesterday that PHD seems to have dropped its “finding a better way” line.
There are a couple of agencies who are on the right lines, if only a potential client could remember the overly-complex tagline:
Publicis Media - Harnessing the power of the modern media landscape to drive one-to-one consumer engagement at scale
Monkeys - Provocative Ideas That Live Within Advertising, Entertainment And Technology.
Then there are the attention-seekers, including the one-word slogan of Cummins & Partners, and The Works who take longer to say the same thing:
Cummins & Partners - Attention
The Works - Work that’s worthy of attention
But I have also come up with a top ten of agencies whose lines say something more original about them.
Zenith - “The ROI agency”
Thinkerbell - “Measured magic”
AJF - “We think. And we do.”
BMF - Long ideas in a world of short-term thinking”
McCann - Truth well told”
Saatchi & Saatchi - “The Nothing is Impossible company”
Marketforce - “Creativity is always the answer”
Mediacom - “See the bigger picture”
CHEP Network - “New Economy Creativity”
The Hallway - “Affective ideas since always”
I put Zenith top of the list with The ROI Agency not only because it unashamedly speaks to marketers’ number one concern, but because the brand has stuck with the line for almost 20 years now. When ZenithOptimedia’s UK CEO, the Kiwi Antony Young, introduced the line in 2003, it was before effectiveness became the buzzword that it is now. The market moved to meet him. That’s vision.
I’m keen on Thinkerbell’s line for the same reason I like Hearts & Science’s name. It’s wonderful, simple way of talking about the most important two things about the agency Ditto on AJF, in third place.
And BMF nods towards its heritage with the reference to long ideas. Just look at its Aldi work, and the heritage it created for MLA with Sam Kekovich’s Australia Day address, which has evolved but still continues in the hands of The Monkeys.
The Hallway’s line, meanwhile, is a little cheeky. “Always” began in 2007 when Jules Hall started the agency.
But perhaps one of the reasons it’s so hard to find a good, distinctive line is that it’s hard to know what you stand for. Sometimes you only know that you want to leave the networks.
Pete Bosilkovski’s new agency It’s Friday has the line “Energy beats everything”. Which isn’t bad. But gee, he struggled to explain his proposition on the Mumbrellacast this week. Take a listen from the 21.40 minute mark.
Here’s a transcript of his first answer, which was to the not-particularly difficult question: “Why is now the time to go out on your own?”:
“It’s Covid (laughs loudly) Why not? (Laughs some more) No, that’s a very good question, ah I think um do you know I think you go into this industry and it it’s it’s so electric and magical and and you you know you get entrusted with these amazing brands and um then you work in organisations that have got you know very clear um ah point of view um of how they ah manage brands?
“Ah and don’t know, you know it’s years of of working with amazing people that you always in the back of your mind you kinda have always thought it would be great if um we could start something ah wouldn’t it be great to actually have no obstacles in the way but just you know um create create an entity and offering that um you truly believe in, ah and you know I think all those roads all those years have led to this you know to to really firm up your point of view.
“I ah I think you need you know and some folks do it very early on their career ah and are blazing successes, um for me I’ve really enjoyed learning more about different organisations and the way they sort of view the world and how they ah manage brands and so um it just felt it was the time
“You know, it had nothing to do with the great resignation or anything like that um but I have to say um you know the the first lockdown that we had in 2020 we kept going in to the office so there was only a few of us so really it was business as usual for us um and the second one there was um having to work from home because Gladys made you work from home ah which was a good thing, um you know stay safe, but it I didn’t, um I don’t think I’ve ever had that point of time to reflect, ah I know it might might sound silly but you know you kinda 20 odd years of you know going in at um at a hundred miles an hour ah loving what you do but you know the only time you’ve got a break is holidays whatever.
“But this was a real point of reflection um and and I’ve never had that before. You know ya you do stop here and there to sorta think you know hang on ‘where am I going, is this the right place or should I need another challenge’, I don’t mean any of that, I mean what do I really want, and I, I think four, five months of not being in an office where um you’re not constantly, you’re in a lot of meetings but you’ve got time to yourself, um and and I think that was the trigger of ‘okay I I feel like this time is right’
“It was serendipity and you know with some of my partners who are kinda feeling the same way, and we’ve felt well you know this is the time we’ve gotta, we’ve got this passion to do it, um and fear is something that always kinda gets in the way um (chuckles) and I had this quote up um which was ‘everything you want is on the other side of fear’ but yeah you know there there’s one thing of wanting to do it and another thing of actually doing it we just we felt like this is the time, I know it’s crazy but um there’s a few (chuckles) indies who have started during this period too so I dunno, maybe we’re all crazy but ah it just felt right, it it. I can’t explain it, it just felt right it was, it was a feeling that just felt right and and we knew what we wanted to do and we just um we thought okay we’re gonna do it.”
The paragraph breaks are somewhat artificial, by the way. I found myself thinking of this week’s car crash BBC interview with British politician Nadine Dorries.
This is a bad case of throwing stones at glass houses on my part, by the way. I can’t stop saying “You know” when I do podcasts.
I reckon Bosilkovski was trying not to run down any of his old employers. Hidden somewhere in the middle of the stream of consciousness was the key phrase (which I’ve tidied up): “Wouldn’t it be great to work with amazing people, have no obstacles in the way and create an offering that you truly believe in?”
That, I think gives away the motivation for many startups. If Chris Howatson has been allowed to look after Clemenger Group’s staff a little better during the first year of Covid, would he ever have left, for instance? Until that point he seemed to be an Omnicom lifer.
But a lot of these individuals who start independent outfits arrive with relationships to peel away from their old business when non-competes expire, and a plan to do pretty much what they did before, minus the specific piece of big company bullshit they particularly hated.
Very few of them really jump because they have a brand new proposition in mind. But they all create an ever more cluttered market.
Meanwhile the financial model for the big groups has changed. They’re not as willing to grow via massive debt in the way that, for instance, WPP under Sir Martin Sorrell used to. That means fewer opportunities for exits, and for indies to be reabsorbed and rebranded into the big groups.
I suspect that the indies will stay indy for longer, whether they like it or not.
That may also be reinforced by a second dynamic. Marketers, particularly those with local brands, may be developing an appetite to deal with people who are not part of local groups and are not obliged to deliver a 20% annual profit, come hell or high water. They are more drawn to an agency founder who can promise they will work directly on their account, for at least some of the time.
In a conglomerated world, agencyland may be the last refuge of the artisans.
I’d love to know your thoughts about this topic, particularly if you are running and indy, and have a genuinely different proposition. This button is just for you:
Dr Spin writes:
Captain dynamo, the masked minister
Everyone loves a brand ambassador. And who better than the ever dynamic communications minister Paul Fletcher?
Dr Spin imagines that telco brands may feel similarly about Fletcher’s kind offer to wear their mask to how the CMO of Supre would have felt about Kath & Kim back in the day.
Definitely not a robot
Dr Spin came across an intriguing white paper this week, promoted by UK journalism journal, Press Gazette. It offers publishers insights into how to use robots to automate news stories.
There was however, an extra box to tick before downloading:
Which seems somewhat discriminatory in the circumstances.
The nottest 100?
Like many a newspaper reader, Dr Spin loves a power list. So he endorses the decision of News Corp’s Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph to create its own Power 100.
And he’s intrigued to see that News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller is all the way up there at seventh most powerful person in NSW. He’s well ahead of federal opposition leader (and likely next prime minister?) Anthony Albanese, who’s all the way down in position number 17.
Other News Corp talent in the top 20 include Sky News boss Paul ‘Boris’ Whittaker, at number 19, and Foxtel CEO Patrick Delany at 20.
Dr Spin can picture the internal rune-reading as the Tele staff agonised over which of Whittaker and Delany to put ahead of the other.
As Media Watch producer Jason Whittaker (presumably no relation to Boris) observes, the list will be interesting data next time somebody calls an inquiry into media influence
Speaking of News Corp, some unbylined genius at The Herald Sun in Melbourne wrote the intro of the week in yesterday’s edition. Remember last year’s lockdown scandal over influencer Nadia Bartel’s snorting “white powder” off a Kmart plate?
The Walkleys give an award for headlines. Maybe there should be one for intros too.
Unmade Index: Back in the red
Just when The Unmade Index of Australia’s ASX-listed media and marketing companies was threatening to climb back to the 1000 point level where it started the year, yesterday was an all-red day. While the wider ASX All Ordinaries Index sank by 1%, The Unmade Index dropped by more than 3%
Seven West Media, which had seen its share price ramping up ahead of this coming Tuesday’s half yearly results statement, saw the biggest fall, with a drop of nearly 7%.
HT&E, owner of Australian Radio Network, slumped by 5.53%
Cold snap for Olympics
The Beijing Winter Olympics have been a ratings bust around the world. The Drum reports that the opening ceremony delivered record low ratings for UK and US rights holders the BBC and NBC. In Australia the late night ceremony delivered Seven an overnight metro rating of an insipid 388,000. Last night’s events rated 370,000.
Nine reshuffles as Nick Young switches to Nova
Australia’s biggest local media company Nine announced a reshuffle of how it runs its sales teams. Richard Hunwick will lead Nine’s Total Television sales, covering metro, regional and BVOD ad sales. Ashley Earnshaw will be sales director for Total Audio covering radio, live streaming and podcasts. And Jo Clasby is Total Publishing sales director, covering The SMH, The Age, The AFR and nine.com.au.
All will report into chief sales officer Michael Stephenson.
The announcement coincided with the departure of Nine’s digital sales chief Nick Young to chief commercial officer at Lachlan Murdoch’s Nova Entertainment.
Leigh Sales to leave 7.30
Leigh Sales, the presenter of the ABC’s nightly news program 7.30 announced that she will step down after more than 11 years with the show. She told viewers: “I’ve always approached this job with one goal, and that’s to ask frank questions of people in power.”
Sales has been the target of what often appeared to be irrational hostility from left wing fringes of Twitter when she asked difficult questions of Labor politicians. Similar attacks on other female ABC presenters saw ABC News Breakfast host Lisa Miller quit Twitter and Patricia Karvelas, who now presenters RN Breakfast, plead for more civility.
MFA Awards winners
The Media Federation of Australia finally handed out its 2021 MFA Awards winners in a virtual ceremony on Thursday night. The grand prix went to WPP’s Wavemaker for the Discreet Life HIV information campaign on behalf of the NSW Government.
True Crime tops the podcast ranking
The Christmas pause saw a slow start to the year with monthly podcast listeners down across the board according to the January Australian Podcast Ranker.
Casefile True Crime was top, despite not uploading any new episodes during the month. Hamish & Andy managed to maintain fourth place, without adding any new content either.
Time to let you go about your Saturday.
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Have a great weekend.