The news that Japan's giant Dentsu ad agency will switch from private to public ownership in 2001 makes clear one debate about the future of big agencies is all but over. While a few agency giants may yet hold out, the model for the large modern companies that own global ad agency networks will be that of the publicly held corporation and all that that means-top managers worried about how the stock fared in trading in New York, London or Tokyo that day, or how antsy stockholders view their performance, or how the quarterly numbers compare to a year ago.
Advertisers, used to the demands of public ownership, likely will have little say about how this trend plays out. In this era of agency consolidation, the benefits of raising funds through equity sales rather than debt are too compelling. Of the world's 15 top advertising organizations in 1996, as ranked by Advertising Age, eight were publicy owned at the end of that year. A ninth (Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt) has since merged with a public company (True North Communications), and two more (Dentsu and Young & Rubicam) are headed toward public ownership. Only four from that list have resisted-for now-the impulse to go public: Japan's Hakuhodo, France's Publicis Communication and U.S.-based Leo Burnett Co. and MacManus Group.
Advertisers stand to potentially gain larger, better funded, more financially disciplined global business allies in the big public-owned agencies. But there's no guarantee. It was public ownership that fueled the Saatchi brothers' rise and fall. But public ownership also has bred a more skilled class of agency top management, executives who can earn the respect of big advertisers not just for the services their agencies provide but also for the way they navigate large, complex shareholder-owned businesses.
That's not a small achievement in the agency business, where management prowess has traditionally taken a back seat to the Big Idea.
It's no less a respected newsman than David Brinkley that brings us once again to the topic of the fine line between editorial material and the salesmanship of advertising. We can just see him strongly siding with us on previous editorials in these pages over many years about how distinct, bold and clear that line must be for the consumer-viewer and reader.
This time, however, Mr. Brinkley, now retired from ABC News, is the pitchman-for controversial agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, a company that has paid about $100 million in federal fines for price fixing on an international scale.
In the spots, which the production house admits were done with Mr. Brinkley's longtime news status in mind, the star states his role as paid pitchman. That is what we'd expect from him, at least in that one respect. But the ads are airing on the very ABC program-"This Week"-where Mr. Brinkley long served as host and that ADM long sponsored. ABC failed to serve its viewers well in its initial airing of the commercial.
The network's current host read a disclaimer when the spot ran, but the statement sounded like a message of praise for the former hero. "We congratulate Mr. Brinkley on his new role . . . as spokesperson for . . ."-come on! Why not say: "The following is a commercial message in which David Brinkley, now no longer associated with ABC or any other news organizaton, is being used as a paid spokesman"?
Better yet, why not tell ADM that, while it's welcome to advertise, this particular news show is off-limits for that particular ad. Given Mr. Brinkley's exceptional past career, that would be best for everyone.