Partners are for dances. To thrive, big agencies need to provide ideas

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Marketers don't want partners.

They want ideas. They want results. They want creative solutions to business challenges.

The faster big global agency networks recognize that-and stop pining for some mystical, transcendent client relationship that bears no resemblance to their current status or worth-the faster they can define their actual value and compete for a spot on the roster.

Simple, harsh fact: The separation of planning from creative and the development of in-house strategic capabilities by clients-who, thanks to database technologies, now know far more about their customers' actual behaviors than any outside partner can tell them-gives marketers the freedom to shop around for creative services.

And they're like kids let loose in a candy store, gleeful to be freed from what they viewed as restraints that bound them to one large (read: boring) agency "partner." The most eye-catching confections for them, at least for now, are small, entrepreneurial creative boutiques.

This may be only a temporary swing of the pendulum, but it's a pronounced one. Big marketers are infatuated with small shops, especially those from other lands such as Mother, Taxi, Strawberry Frog, BBH and Naked. They're thrilled by the Fallons, Crispins and Goodbys of the world as well, eager to have some creative magic worked on their brands. And they're clearly relieved that their choices are no longer limited to the likes of Y&R, FCB and Lowe.

The effects on the business are already being felt. The three agency networks named in the preceding paragraph are struggling in a way that would have been nearly unthinkable a decade ago for such industry icons. Agency vets talk about Y&R these days in hushed tones and with a sad shake of their heads-that is, when they're not calculating which of its remaining clients are vulnerable for a pickoff.

I'm not counting out large agencies, only those that cling to business models based on predetermined solutions or outdated notions of client service. Several big agencies are doing their best to adapt, and the rest of the industry is keeping a close watch. JWT under Bob Jeffrey is one. BBDO under Andrew Robertson another.

I've long thought of marketers, agencies and media sellers as three legs of the same stool, each separate but dependent on the others to support the structure. But as our reporters and editors bring back and sift through intelligence from all fronts, it's clear the segments are now disconnected. In any given week, I'll spend time with a mix of marketing executives, media sellers and agency bosses, and I'm often stunned by the degree to which they speak different languages, and by the lack of awareness they have of each others' agendas and paths, even names.

In such an atmosphere, the notion of an agency "partner" is almost childishly naive. One agency executive told me last week he views it more like a bullpen situation. Baseball managers are paid to win games, not to protect players' feelings, and they'll size up situations and call on the athlete with the best skills to get the job done. Those who get results will get called on more often. They'll earn the role of bullpen ace, not have it bestowed on them based on how long they've been with the team or what they did in the '97 season. Clients are making those same calls when they need ideas and solutions.

Big agencies have a choice: They can wring their hands, accept diminished distribution roles and hope the pendulum will eventually swing back their way, or they can adapt and compete on the thing that matters most: the idea.

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