Paul Simons: why agency cultures only work if everyone starts from the same place

Last week MAA ran a story about M&C Saatchi and the challenges of grafting new limbs to a live body as they did with Lean Mean Fighting Machine. Like the medical parallel this needs to be done with great care and skill plus there is the risk of the body rejecting the foreign tissue at some point.

It is a very complicated set of issues and real justice to the subject can’t be covered adequately in 1000 words. Moreover every case is different.

The general challenge for any agency with a history in broadcast advertising – TV, cinema, posters, print and radio – is how to embrace new technology and fashions in an intelligent and progressive way. The difficulty with the embrace is both parties can feel clumsy and, culturally, are usually on different planets.

I’ve experienced this merging of disciplines several times and the lessons repeat themselves over and over again. As the Irish say: “I wouldn’t start from here”, I would start from a new place as have Anomaly and Droga5. The obstacle is definitely about cultures.

Some years ago I was hosting a private dinner with Chemistry, then a classic sales promo/DM business, to discuss a potential acquisition. The Chemistry team were very chippy and attitudinal. I was waiting to see what was lurking below the surface. At some point one of their team made a derogatory remark about advertising agencies (the chips were beginning to show) and the Fallon “Gorilla’ spot for Cadbury (below) was ridiculed as a self-indulgent exercise that couldn’t be measured. I pointed out we were discussing the Cadbury spot and not discussing any of Chemistry’s work. A bit bitchy on my part but I was getting tired of this ad agency berating.

I concluded we would find it very difficult to work with their senior team hence the conversation died a death very quickly.

One of my big misjudgements was with an enterprise named Cagney Plc., a vehicle a few of us created to build a group of marcoms businesses. Our team of three did all of the heavy lifting, all of the ground work to get this listed on AIM and do all of the acquisitions – a big task that takes a great deal of time and effort. The businesses we added all had their part to play as a member of a bigger game but fairly early on the principals of each business began to see their part as much more important than the other parts.

It was a curious and worrying development because none of the principals had any experience of running larger businesses, had not been part of groups and had not been part of a listed business. The exception was the CFO, Patrick Oram, who came from AMV with a good reference but he became a serious problem both internally and externally. He’d spent years as an accountant reporting to Omnicom and did not have the correct touch for a young entrepreneurial business.

Patrick influenced the minds of others in the group and this eventually led to a mutiny one evening with me staring at a group of people who had been receivers and not givers to the bigger picture. Peter Law was one who was quick to criticise and slow to help, another was Steve Mattey whose claim to fame was one client, and Kerry Simpson, a founding partner of Cubo, a business we immediately helped to move from loss to profit.

One of my roles was front man for the plc., someone has to do it but also in our case I was the key reason we raised the funds for the floatation, based on history. There seemed to be a weird desire to do my job rather than do theirs, the basis of the idea behind Cagney.

The result eventually led to me to resigning and walking away, the share price collapsed, people lost real money (including me) and the business today is run by Kerry Simpson and remains the same Cubo it was over a decade ago. All of the other players have melted away in to the fog, never to be seen again.

My personal comparison is with the Simons Palmer story in the ‘90s where we built a small group of related yet distinct businesses. As well as the ad agency we invested in Manning and Gottlieb to create media agency MGM (that also included Robert Ffitch and Hilary Roberts from the get-go). We also funded the start-up of MBA where Stephen Maher has been at the helm since then and also funded a research business called Headlight Vision.

The difference to the Cagney story is the nature of the people. The Cagney folk had been round for a while and wanted to sell, make money and be part of a bigger game whereas the Simons Palmer folk were all younger people being given the opportunity to develop their own businesses with the parent business backing them. Culturally we were all in the same boat.

My mistake with the Cagney line-up was an assumption that the people concerned had signed up to a collective goal. But what became clear fairly quickly was that they were all out for their own, bluntly, small-minded ends.

I think what is interesting is the comparison of the people from each experience. From the Simons Palmer story we have names such as Robert Senior, Carl Johnson, Simon Clemmow, Michael Wall, Nick Manning, Colin Gottlieb, Robert Ffitch, Chris Palmer, Mark Denton, Charlie Rudd, plus many more and from the Cagney stable just one – Trott. But Dave was famous before so it doesn’t count.

Returning to the M&C story of last week they must be going through some pain as they have committed themselves to a change in culture, people have left and they have yet to win a juicy client in 2015 to compensate for the losses of Dixons and Direct Line. By comparison Engine appears to have managed the development well with WCRS shortlisted for MAA Agency of the Year. The M&C team are no dummies, by a country mile, hence a good outcome is to be expected. But it is a journey that might be bumpy.

I’m well aware of the difficulty figuring out the optimum route through this confusing cultural landscape.

But based on the obvious premise that no one creative business can be all things to all men and women, I do strongly believe that having a manifesto is ultimately a winning approach.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“Reasonable men attempt to adapt themselves to the world,

Unreasonable men attempt to adapt the world to themselves,

Progress is in the hands of unreasonable men.”

Today the majority of agencies are described in the first line.

My postscript on this topic is my hobby horse about how agencies describe themselves to prospective clients. I was given a credentials deck over the weekend from one of the big global groups which featured a below-the-line agency (sorry young readers but I still don’t know what language to use). I turned to the ‘Services’ page and the list of stuff they said they could provide was endless.

Very impressive if they can do all of these tasks (I suspect not) but the issue for me was trying to figure out what their core business was. It reminded me of an ancient ad for some sort of automotive brand with the headline ‘The answer is yes, now what’s the question?’ This felt like the ‘Services’ page from this agency.

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