A new combative mood settles over ad agency land

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You can tell business is getting better when ad agency guys start getting feisty.

Ron Berger, the head man at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners and the incoming chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, set the mood at last month's 4A's conference when he declared: "Let's toot our own horn about our industry's contributions rather than continuing to have a few spokespersons who go on TV to showcase how smart they are vs. how dumb our industry is." (Donny Deutsch, can you hear me now?)

And Kevin Roberts, who surely must be independently wealthy, committed minor blasphemy when he characterized integrated marketing as overrated and then had the audacity to add, "If I hear the words `touch points' or `holistic' one more time, I'm going to throw up." His boss, Maurice Levy, has made `holistic marketing' the touch point of his French agency holding company's raison d'etre.

Agencies' new sense of combativeness is a good thing, said another brave soul, Publicis USA head Susan Gianinno (who also works for the aforementioned Mr. Levy). "People aren't afraid to debate each other. There is much more competitiveness, more divergence."

Mr. Berger, for his part, took exception to a Yankelovich study showing that most consumers believe there's too much advertising and that marketers don't treat consumers with respect. But Mr. Berger contended consumers are mostly fed up with spam and telemarketing tactics, which are not the kind of anti-social behavior 4A's members engage in.

Yankelovich President J. Walker Smith said at the 4A's confab that there is a deeper problem here-a saturated marketplace is alienating consumers. "The traditional assumption that consumers can deal with clutter by self-selecting what to watch ignores the evidence to the contrary-that choosing from a superabundance of options makes consumers less likely to choose at all and less satisfied when they do make a choice." He said the the power and productivity of marketing are declining. "The marketing industry thinks that spammers and telemarketers are the problem, but our data clearly identify a huge problem for mainstream marketers."

I get the distinct feeling that ad agency people, after having gotten beaten up over the past few years, are not very receptive to criticism these days. Mr. Berger told me after the conference that such threats as consultants, procurement officers and TiVo have "all come and gone and come back again and have been embraced and incorporated by a smart and adaptive and vibrant industry. And we've managed to thrive overall." As an industry, he added, "we are not getting proper appreciation for the real, intangible value we provide to clients, to the economy, to our culture." But "we've done a miserable job marketing our brand."

I don't blame agency people for wanting to go on the offensive after getting kicked around the block for so long. But there are plenty of real problems out there that agencies and their clients are going to have to deal with. And, yes, is there just too much advertising? The next target, I predict, will be the holy grail of integrated marketing and how some critics say it's leading to commercial messages plastered over almost every square inch of our planet.

* Correction: In my last column on Kellogg's Carlos Gutierrez, I erred when I said he was born in Mexico. Mr. Gutierrez was actually born in Cuba.

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