Paul Simons: why agencies are in the shape they’re in – and my Agency of the Year nominee..

I’m finding the question of Agency of the Year more difficult as each year goes by. It was easier pre-internet because the criteria were very clear; new business record, creative output, awards won, and that was about it really. There was always a lot of chat around the shortlist and so on but usually pretty cut and dried.

Also today, what defines an agency? I’m not too sure any more as descriptions alter. I recall Mike Gold saying many years ago that handymen would unscrew ‘Research’ from a door and replace it with ‘Planning.’ I’ve noticed how many ad agencies have become communication agencies. Another of Mr Gold’s witty comments referred to the poster industry where he observed that the biggest innovation in decades was the move from wooden to aluminium ladders. I digress.

Many direct marketing agencies now call themselves something else, almost as though DM is the kiss of death, old money and all that stuff.

For all of those who did A-level English, George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ would have been on the reading list. Orwell described the book as ‘a satirical tale on Stalin (and the Russian revolution).’ I think the parallels are strikingly similar.

I think it is all about a race for the top table with the client.
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I have this image in my head of different disciplines all racing for the top table, tripping each other up and calling: ‘Please Sir, I have the magic answer’. Once the reserved territory for advertising agency principals only, like a private club people in other disciplines could only dream of, we have today several snouts at the trough all trying to outdo the other diners.

We have Dataman, CRMman, Activationman, Digitalman, Mediaman, BehaviouralScienceman; no wonder Advertisingman is feeling like Custer at the last stand.

A striking example is the rise of the production agencies from being very much below stairs to a key player directly linked with certain clients. This is Animal Farm in spades with production Johnnies taking wholesale business away from advertising agencies, who were probably sleeping on the job. In the last century the production girls and boys would be in the background, kept away even from the ad agency management. Now one former luminary is chairman of a Premiership football club!

This race for the top is mostly driven by what clients believe are the important issues for their business now; not a decade ago, but tomorrow and next month. Customer service has caught many large organisations napping: have you tried getting through to BT recently? Obviously anything social media/internet/mobile/etc., is really mega-important for many organisations as business is directly linked to these channels.

So, in many cases, it is a matter of all hands to the pump, including the agency folk. I assume saying ‘we don’t do that’ is another kiss of death so to be avoided at all costs. Lying is apparently a regular option.

The Animal Farm analogy hits a brick wall when you get to the guillotine’s place in the script but many of the names associated with old boys clubs, cigars and cognac have long since been replaced by street-smart players.

Where is all this leading to, I hear you complain.

My nomination for the UK’s Agency of the Year 2015 is for an agency that keeps turning out the goods despite such changes. This outfit is probably the UK’s gold standard of what an advertising agency is best at: good ideas, relevant to the brand and audience, executed with care and style. Also this place seems to me to be particularly good at TV; something I feel is on the decline. Importantly this agency produces work that is talked about for good reason; it is mostly intelligent and well observed, often with a trademark emotional spark.

I also feel there is a lot of blue sky between them today and the next agency of note; frankly bloody impressive all round. My nomination for 2015 – roll of drums – is adam&eve/DDB.

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About Paul Simons

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Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.
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