Holding (Company) On For Dear Life
Madison Avenue, did you not notice the panel subjects? Mobile, Big Data, so-called “native” advertising, “brand stories” -- 200 of them, all premised on momentous change. And yet, at least among the agency folks I was hanging with, there was the prevailing sense that this was all no biggie. Sure, some disruption at the margins -- but all in all, business as usual.
Mind you, the Publicis/Omnicom merger is going to send thousands of people packing, with more consolidation surely to come. The attendees came and went from agency office buildings with whole empty floors. Broadcast TV, for 60-some years the goose that laid the golden egg, is essentially gone; for practical purposes, based on both distribution and the revenue models, the nets and their affiliates are cable channels -- and cable is being cannibalized by Hulu, Netflix, Roku, Aereo, Amazon and soon, most likely, actual cannibals.
This may explain why in the city of Mad Men the agencies had so little presence. The big sponsors were media companies and the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, Adobe, Acxiom, ATT Networks, Yahoo and Nielsen. Was there a single “partner” among holding-company agency units? If so, I could not locate it.
I had a nice lunch with the global creative director of a famous-name ad agency. We discussed how soft the business is in North America, and more or less everyplace that isn’t an emerging market. He talked about the competition from other holding companies, and from other agencies within his own. That’s when I asserted that big ad agencies are the least of his problems.
“In my view, you should be worrying more about SAP, Adobe and Salesforce.com.”
He looked at me as if I’d put my fork up my nose.
“At this stage,” I continued, “it’s all about relationships -- aggregating relationships at scale. It’s not about making ads. It’s about social, and data, and email and probably content disintermediated from the media you’ve spent your career making ads for.”
Now, this guy is very, very smart and has built a rather phenomenal creative organization, so the impact of digital technology on the agency business is not lost on him. He replied by speaking a great truth: “We will always have storytelling,” he said. And that is correct.
Except now the vast majority of us DVR right past the story.
I didn’t say that, though. It was an enlightening and cordial lunch. Also, he picked up the tab, so I didn’t feel right about grabbing him by the lapels and shouting: “Don’t you see that the future of your business depends on getting out of the ad-campaign mentality? Don’t you see that if your agency isn’t doing the data mining, and the search-engine optimization and the customer-relations management in addition to the videos and posters that you will soon be obsoleted by freakin’ enterprise software companies? Never mind IPG. Look over your shoulder at IBM."
“WANNA DO SOME STORYTELLING? TELL YOUR CLIENTS THAT YOU WILL CONNECT THEIR BRANDS WITH CONSUMERS BY ALL AVAILABLE MEANS, PERIOD.”
Okay -- I did say those things, but perhaps a bit less confrontationally. (I am soooo unattractive with spittle flying from my mouth.) After two hours, we shook hands and agreed to stay in touch. But I did not feel I had made much of an impression.
That very evening, I found myself at a cocktail party, where I got chatted up by the principal of a San Francisco digital boutique. Business is good, he told me. Then started going on and on about the joys of being untethered from the ruthless demands of a holding company and thus free to follow the creative spark wherever it leads. “The creative freedom. That’s what keeps me in this craziness.”
Then he took a long pull on his ballroom-foyer cocktail. “Of course,” he added, “just between you and me, 40% of my business is email marketing.”