Holding (Company) On For Dear Life

Went to Advertising Week in New York, with all its pomp and self-importance, but it was all so odd. I didn't actually attend the 1970 Studebaker New Model Showcase, but I think I now have a sense of its flavor. For the crowd, a party. For the host, a wake.

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”

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."


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.”




6 comments about "Holding (Company) On For Dear Life".
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  1. Sean Tracey from Sean Tracey Associates, September 30, 2013 at 11:32 a.m.

    I'd still rather be in the storytelling biz than the digital/data biz. Every heard those guys talk?

  2. Jennifer Norene from Digital Marketing Coach, September 30, 2013 at 1:07 p.m.

    Thank you for your candor. I agree with you. And aren't most corporations better at data storage, mining and CRM Management -- some of them definitely are.

  3. Jim Thompson from Temple University, September 30, 2013 at 6:07 p.m.

    Not sure that the vast majority of Americans "DVR right past the story". Seems like most studies suggest that the majority still don't use DVRs and among those that do, many do not skip past the ads. Not suggesting that there aren't big shifts happening but it will be many years before ads go away on TV. And of course you can't DVR-skip past ads on YouTube and other digital sites.

  4. todd slutzky from Studiocom, October 1, 2013 at 10:48 a.m.

    Bob. Your article reflects an ongoing discussion my account lead and I have had over the past two years. The struggle between doing the compelling/break though creative I am challenged to do while also directly meeting the larger needs of integrated, complex and very diverse communication. It is both are jobs to do it, but for the most part creatives are only judged on the creative quality of our work. We win awards and get raises (or new jobs) based on how creative our work is. Not how efficient. Or other such things. Not sure how that changes, but it is interesting to be a part of the ongoing struggle.

  5. Jacques Meir from Grupo Padrão, October 1, 2013 at 2:53 p.m.

    Hi, Bob.
    Nice article. Tell to your palls at advertising agency that even the media companies are able to develop good stories for companies and brands. As you know, we do this here in Brazil and we simply don´t need to share the strategies (and the content) with ad agencies. We go straight to the companies and we can plan and create strong relationships with some of their stakeholders... What the agency people need to know is that we are living in a brand new world, driving by authentic and genuine relationships lay on social media for sure, by even at the stores, phone, mobile...Is there a place for creative ad? Of course, but this creative work should be meaningful to people and free to share and talk each other. The value is not at the product or service, but in the customer, employees, shareholders´minds. They give value to brands, not the brands by themselves.

  6. Burt Dralling from FCB, October 2, 2013 at 2:03 p.m.

    The 'big merge' was indeed the start of the big collapse of big advertising. And while the future holds big changes for those in the ad biz, perhaps the biggest will be how small the money becomes. To think agencies can survive on digital 'at their core' is to believe a lion could survive on brussel sprouts. The democracies born of the internet that are decimating law practices, print and good taste to name a few, will in time drain the salaries of even the most prized 'integrated' CD's, otherwise simply known as designers. There are no winners in this biz. Even commentary like Bob's will soon be seen as needy and ultimately irrelevant.

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