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2014 – the year global adland’s dogs didn’t bark

‘The Curious Incident Of the Dog In the Night-Time’ is a highly successful novel and a play by Mark Haddon, dealing, among other things, with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism.

But the expression comes from a Sherlock Holmes story, ‘Silver Blaze,’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story centres on the theft of a horse from a stable:

Gregory (a Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

On which insight Holmes cracks the case.

Global adland in 2014 – its major players anyway – might be characterized as dogs that didn’t bark.

2014 was supposed to be the year when a number of big deals transformed the global advertising scene and, so far, they haven’t. There are still a few days of 2014 left, of course, but the aforementioned players are leaving it late.

Back in the summer the biggest of big deals, the proposed $35bn merger of the second and third biggest marcoms companies – US-based Omnicom and French giant Publicis Groupe – was called off. Nobody knows exactly why: there was a disagreement over which party should supply the chief financial officer, which may indicate that the two companies’ financial systems were incompatible. But called off the deal was.

Which left UK-based WPP as the biggest global player, much to the delight of its CEO Sir Martin Sorrell. But Sorrell, by far the most energetic dealmaker in adland over the last 30 years, kept his powder dry too – in his case by choice.

2014 was also supposed to be the year when the new giants of advertising – Google, Facebook and, in some respects, Apple – encroached decisively on the big marcoms companies’ territory by offering mega media deals direct to advertisers, thereby cutting out the likes of WPP and Omnicom. The fear of this happening was one of the reasons behind the proposed Omnicom/Publicis merger – the two parties thought they would be safer if they got bigger.

But this didn’t happen either – or, at least, not to the extent that many people thought. For now the likes of Google and Facebook seem content to rub along with the marcoms boys, so long as they get a big slice of their clients’ budgets.

The final dog lurking in the vicinity of the stables was a management consultant – perm any one from Accenture, Deloitte or KPMG. These companies offer a huge range of services to advertisers – ones which ad agencies used to provide – and it seemed only a matter of time before they took the next step by forming or buying creative units so they could produce the ads as well as tell clients what sort of ads they should have and where they should place them.

But they didn’t do that either. Maybe it’s easier just to offer advice rather than advice and execution. Maybe they couldn’t find the right bunch of creative people. But bark they did not.

This could be the lull before the storm. Sorrell at WPP has been busily reshuffling his data-based assets (the ‘Math Men’ as opposed to ‘Mad Men’ part of the business) by, among other things, rolling some of them into a minority shareholding in independent ad network AppNexus.

Publicis CEO Maurice Levy, still smarting from the collapse of the merger with Omnicom, is in the process of splashing out $3.7bn on US digital consultancy Sapient, which he thinks will give him a decisive advantage in the digital wars. Many analysts are not so sure.

Real life may not be stranger than fiction but it’s certainly different. So it looks like there’ll be no quick, Sherlock Holmes type fix to these particular conundrums.

A reason for that may be that the world’s biggest advertisers – the Coca-Colas, Unilevers and Procter & Gambles – are increasingly suspicious of the increasingly complex – and opaque – digital advertising and media options offered to them by the marcoms companies and their rivals.

They are investing heavily in their own people on the basis that if you don’t understand something, don’t do it. So they’re buying knowledge instead of new third party solutions.

But, sooner or later, this particular logjam will break. 2015 may be the year we see the big transformative deals in adland actually happen.

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