Paul Simons: agencies tell clients change is coming but are they prepared to change too?

Back in 1986 I was at Gold Greenlees Trott and one client at the time was ITV. The GGT head of planning was Damian O’Malley and we both worked on the ITV business. We were asked to present a forward view of the TV market to the marketing committee, a powerful group of individuals who represented all of the stations in the ITV confederation.

Part of our presentation, in a smoke filled board room in Portman Square, speculated on the impact of future players in the TV market, given there were just four in 1988. Our hypothesis was a) more channels did not mean more viewing so b) the existing channels would inevitably lose share. There was a lot of scoffing at our speculation; the attitude was that their market share couldn’t be dented.

I went through a carbon copy discussion with BT about its services (not TV in those days) a few years down the track.

A similar situation arose years later at Simons Palmer when we were invited to pitch for Intercity rail, at the time a plum account. However, after a bit of reading and researching, we concluded Intercity might not be around for much longer due to anticipated deregulation so we withdrew from the pitch process, in writing.

The Intercity team called and asked for a meeting with us and the question they asked was: “how do you know this?” We just gave them the truthful answer that it was speculation based on available information in the public domain and said, “what would happen if Virgin became a train operator?” How they laughed at us.

These examples demonstrate the difficulty people have accepting that the status quo might go tits up in the near future. It is understandable and, when it might threaten the livelihoods of individuals, quite scary.

I have sat in numerous client meetings where a vision of change is tabled only to be rejected by the client as impossible.

I wonder if the advertising industry is in the midst of such change – slowly moving ground from the established world most people feel at home with to new ground that is different.

Recently M&C Saatchi announced a big move in London with four of the senior team taking an equity stake in the UK business, CEO Tom Bazeley being one of the four. Tom’s business, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, was acquired late 2014 and he was subsequently made CEO of M&C London. To many this was a radical, almost wild move. Around the watering holes of London’s adland Tom’s appointment was frankly scoffed at, a bit like my earlier client examples.

But perhaps we should give more credit to the M&C founders; they are no slouches when it comes to smart moves, like buying and selling the Golden Square office building for example. So perhaps they had looked into the future and saw a different business model in terms of skills and deliverables.

If this is correct it could be that M&C’s actions are the early signpost to a different world. My view is the advertising landscape is going through fundamental change creating confusion for many and opportunity for the few. I’ve noticed in recent times how the language of agencies has changed to embrace the digital world as the Holy Grail. One thing digital does is remove historic silos, such as above and below the line, DM and sales promotion, broadcast and narrowcast, because everyone can claim digital skills. Also it is easy to make digital collateral look glossy and sexy, providing further food for thought for the client already scratching his or her head.

It would be really interesting to see what the advertising industry will be like in 2020, just four years away.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.