Which is Better for Agency Talent -- Giant Holding Companies or Independent Shops?

Publicis-Omnicom Merger Provokes Round of Paeans to Independence

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The mega-merger between two already-giant agency holding companies, Publicis Groupe and Omnicom Group, is swelling the support for independent shops. Agencies that don't answer to multinational holding companies are more agile, the argument goes. They can be more creative, move more quickly and display more entrepreneurial spirit. So they're clearly better places for talent, right?

Having worked on both sides, though, I can tell you that one mode is not better than the other. They are just different.

I have spent approximately half my career working under the banners of Publicis and Omnicom, and more recently have had the experience of working at Edelman, a global but independent company.

I started at the now defunct Agency.com in 2000 at the height of the dot-com bubble. Three years later Omnicom bought us. In spite of a lot of hype and its share of negative headlines, Agency.com had some really smart and innovative people working there. One of my colleagues there, Charles Adler, even went on to co-found Kickstarter -- you don't get much smarter or talented than that.

So why did I leave? Something ultimately seemed different. We had stopped innovating and we weren't winning like we used to. And there was a slow but steady drain on the talent. One day, you looked around and realized that the people who really made you think or want to push yourself to the limits weren't there anymore.

Did Omnicom kill Agency.com? It was likely a combination of things, but my guess is that Omnicom tried to make Agency.com a more fiscally viable business and, in the process, something else gave. After nearly six years, it was time for me to try something else.

I then went to Digitas -- a shop I kept hearing wanted to build its talent. It was the challenge I was looking for. I grew in new ways. And then Publicis Groupe, a holding company in a similar vein of Omnicom, struck a deal in December 2006 to buy the agency for $1.3 billion. I wondered to myself if it was going to be deja vu.

In retrospect, and with history on my side, it turned out not to be: Digitas, a respectable player in the space is still alive and well.

But the agency had felt big enough prior to being acquired and after the acquisition it felt like it was going to get even bigger. I recall agency-wide e-mails with updates from leadership making regular references to "Maurice" and Publicis where it was once simply Digitas.

This new agency, as part of a holding company, wasn't for me. So I made the choice to move on.

That brought me to Critical Mass, a Canadian digital shop that had sold a 50% stake to Omnicom years earlier and kept half ownership for itself. If this story had bears and porridge in it, I would have thought this mixture was "just right." And in many ways it was, letting the agency maintain its strong culture and scrappy bent.

During my time there, I got to work on an initiative where multiple Omnicom agencies joined together to pitch global responsibilities for Adidas under a loosely formed sub-agency we named Riot. We won the business, but Riot faced questions about where it would go from there.

We felt we were doing the exact right thing in bringing together people from different agencies to bring together the most relevant talents. But we all knew how difficult the prospect would be in practice, working at separate agencies that often competed with each other in the real world. I left shortly after. The call of the social-digital revolution seemed too strong and I wasn't sure if I was in the right place to capture it.

It feels different to not be connected to a holding company at my current job. There's Richard Edelman, there's a leadership team -- and that's it.

When I worked under a holding company infrastructure, there was the regional leadership, the agency leadership and the mothership of the holding company, which I always felt looming above the agency. I never really knew exactly who was calling the shots.

But the biggest difference between working under a holding company and working at an independent is the bigger presence here of "intraprenuers" -- entrepreneurial spirits who build businesses but do it within the walls of Edelman.

Despite all that, and despite this week's paeans to life at independent agencies, I don't recall my experiences under holding companies as undesirable. They did offer a sense of scale and it always piqued my interest when I'd hear our managing director talk about his role in Omnicom's "DAS," meaning its Diversified Agency Services. I remember always thinking it sounded mysterious, like an invite-only part of the organization.

I can't really tell you if holding companies or independence is a better model. It's a personal choice. But there is one thing I am sure of given my time spent in this industry.

Change is coming, fast and hard. If you want to work in marketing today, be prepared for long hours fighting for every dollar earned and dealing in brain-bending complexity. So what's an agency prepared to offer an employee in return for all this? Every agency, independent or not, should be thinking hard about ways to attract, engage and retain the best talent.

An agency, no less than a global agency holding company, is only as good as the people who make it.

David Armano is managing director of digital at Edelman Chicago.

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