In a rare joint public appearance, three of the four largest agency holding company chiefs came together to lash the industry and, by implication, themselves, for not doing a better job a crucial task: recruiting talent.
WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell called it "criminal neglect," language echoed by Omnicom Group CEO John Wren. "We've gotten way too comfortable poaching, effectively. ... Episodically Omnicom has gone to campuses, but we don't stay there ... we pretend to stay there, but we don't." Interpublic Group of Cos. CEO Michael Roth said, "No one wakes you in the morning and says they want to go work in the advertising business."
All three agreed that the ad industry needs to do a better job in reaching out to business schools, as well as film schools and art schools, to create better systems to lure talent. Firms like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs were held up as examples.
"Our industry has to do a better job of diversity and inclusion," said Mr. Roth, which prompted the panelists to note that one factor that could change the "entitled, Anglo-American" approach to the business would be a shift in ad dollars to fast-growing markets in Asia and elsewhere.
While the three chief executives mainly agreed on the talent point, there were some mild disagreements over method.
Mr. Sorrell, in his usual insistent style, argued that human resources should be represented on the company boards. Mr. Roth disagreed, pointing to corporate governance rules for public companies.
"I think we are paying lip service to it," Mr. Sorrell said.
"Maybe you do," Mr. Roth said. "But we don't."
Despite that flare-up, there wasn't much disagreement among the masters of the ad-agency universe during the panel discussion, which kicked off the second morning of the 4A's conference. Interviewed by Johnson & Johnson marketer Brian Perkins, a client to all three holding companies, the CEOs were generally on the same page when it came to globalization, the challenges presented by new media, acquisitions and the impact of the separation of creative from media.
Asked which agency outside of their own companies was doing everything right, each pointed to Wieden & Kennedy and not much else. Said Mr. Sorrell of the Portland, Ore.-based indie agency, "It'll be interesting to see how they handle generational change." He also pointed to Sapient, saying that the digital agency is "attacking marketing function through the back end, through CTOs and CIOs."
On the ever-nagging issue of media unbundling, the shared perspective is that the now-more-than-a-decade-old shift has allowed media to focus on what it does and has allowed for faster development of better analytics tools. Mr. Perkins, whose J&J underwent a massive media agency review a few years ago, was having none of the argument that it's simply too late to do something about unbundling. When Mr. Sorrell said, "The toothpaste is out of the tube," Mr. Perkins replied, "I don't agree with that metaphor. Things change."
But the holding company chiefs also had a chance to poke back. Asked how clients could get better work from agencies, Mr. Wren said, "Trust us. And every once in while clients should go and pat someone on the back instead of prying $5 from their wallets."
Mr. Wren, typically reserved and not nearly as loquacious as his long-time rival Mr. Sorrell, tossed out the most provocative idea of the day. On the topic of integration, Mr. Wren speculated that in a couple years it's likely that agencies won't hire digital officers, adding: "You might be appointing privacy officers to watch the data and what we do with it."