Don't Get Blinded by Google Envy

Quit the Hand-Wringing and Play to Your Strengths

By Published on .

Two years ago, I moderated a panel at the Detroit Ad Club that marked the first time Martin Sorrell and John Wren appeared on the same stage. About an hour before the event, I was sitting in an outer hallway of the conference center drinking crappy coffee with Sir Martin when Google's Chris Theodoros strolled by. I introduced them and Martin, never one to beat around a bush, shook Chris' hand and asked, "So, are you trying to put us out of business?"

Even then, he had Google envy.

Martin later became a fan of the delightful phrase frenemy to describe Google's relationship with agencies and media companies. His obsession with figuring out the online giant's intentions was obvious, and last week he decided not to sit on the sidelines until he got there. He fears disintermediation and wants to be a player in the digital space, which is why he did the 24/7 Real Media deal. It was fueled as much by his ego as his insights into where the ad business is headed. But it's not likely to make much of a difference.

To describe Google or Microsoft as either friend or enemy -- a distinction many traditional agency and media execs seem desperate to make -- attaches an emotional component to the whole thing that's just not there. It also reveals agencies' fears about what their role will be when a Microsoft can serve a client's marketing needs nearly end to end.

Look, this isn't the playground, and Google isn't out to make friends; it's out to make money. It will partner with media companies and agencies where it makes sense, and it will work around them when it can. Google probably isn't looking to actively put anyone out of business; it doesn't care which companies adapt and thrive and which fall away. And it doesn't need to.

Agencies have always feared disintermediation, but in some segments of the business it will happen. They've got to stop the hand-wringing and figure out where they still add value and be confident of their abilities in those areas. Consumer insights. Creative ideas. Media strategies. Marketers will still need those. Yes, even when behavioral targeting and advanced technologies make it possible to serve the right ads to the right audience at the right time. It won't all come down to technology.

Where agencies will lose their way is if they think they're actually in a horse race with Google. It doesn't matter how many ad-serving companies are acquired by agency groups. Microsoft, Google, AOL and Yahoo will continue to round out their offerings and become more valuable to marketers. The role of agencies will change, and likely lessen. But they need to figure out where they still bring value and enhance those capabilities rather than try to compete head-on in a battle they can't win.
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