Mr. Meyer was the client's marketing problem solver, certainly, but also his father, confessor and shrink. He had worked with so many companies, achieving both depth in the client's sector and breadth across industries, that by direct experience and by pattern recognition he could help the client through just about any dilemma. "Any" pretty much meant every; the issues were as likely to revolve around organizational structure or the competence of individual executives as around trade promotion strategy or ad content. The CEO's queries were as likely to come in unscheduled late-night phone calls as in planned meetings during business hours.
"I learned what client service really means," this executive told me, "from watching Ed Meyer and our CEO." This story is worth recounting not simply because the 77-year-old Mr. Meyer appears, after decades of tight personal ownership, to be putting the last great independent marketing services empire up for sale. It's worth retelling because it shows how difficult it is to successfully sell a professional services business.
In advertising, the best service is inherently personal. The highest value derives not from a product being created for a customer, but from the acuity of the guidance being offered a client. This isn't to say that product isn't important, or that basic services don't count. As Carl Ally understood, the agency business does in fact create a product-advertising-that can move people to action. And as all good agencies know well, sweating the "small stuff"-media planning, consumer research, etc.-is central to building a sustainable enterprise. "My idea of this business," Albert Lasker said in 1925, is "to render service and make money."
But there is a difference between service and Service-an almost mystical concept that is really about the bond between the advisor and the client. That bond long has been the subject of caricature. In Frederic Wakeman's novel "The Hucksters" the adman-client relationship was represented as an artifact of submissiveness to a domineering patron.
Chalk it up to the fact that advertising history tends to be written by disgruntled copywriters, who can see their handiwork on the page and screen, but cannot fathom at all what the best account people provide. For good reason, for that creation is as invisible as it is profound: wisdom. In the quotidian crush-the endless meetings; weekly same-store sales reports; daily P&Ls-most business leaders barely have time to look up from their desks. The ability to perceive patterns in the connections among their supply chain, customer demand, inventories and competitor activity is little more than a wish.
The greatest ad executives provide that intelligence. They are not "marketing geniuses," narrowly construed. Rather, they comprehend that the most critical business advances are inherently multifunctional, and they draw from experience to provide advice that brings together strategy, operational and organizational reality and marketing.
This is the brilliance of the great account executive. This is what Ed Meyer historically has provided his clients. And this is what makes successful mergers in advertising so difficult. Because while service-with-a-small-"s" is scalable, Service is learned magic.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.