Giles Keeble: why WPP-style teamwork is so difficult and questioning the score just isn’t cricket

The events at WPP have raised questions about global networks, not just because of Facebook and Google but also clients going in-house or cherry picking agencies on a job by job basis.

I always thought the desire for an advertising group to own so many agencies in so many different places was based more on money (for both the buyer and the sellers) than on a client’s interest, at least creatively. (There are examples of agencies who have made money and still do great creative work, but you need to look at the client list and the overall standard of work. And of course, there is a lot of evidence that creative advertising is effective, so if clients believe that, both win.) Economies of scale might make sense for production and distribution, but if and when agencies within a network work together there is often the question of how each should be paid, let alone any nascent ‘not invented here’ attitudes.

I remember as ECD of Leo Burnett London being asked to provide a team or teams for a global effort for, say, P&G and arguing that it would have been better to nominate the best team available with the best account team available because any team knowing that ten other teams were also working on the brief would prefer to concentrate on their other (probably national) work. This may be what some clients are doing now – what is the best team available?

When I was at Open (my unsuccessful attempt within the AMV group to set up a ‘new’ kind of agency) Michael Baulk had acquired different PR agencies, promotion agencies and so on. We were all set very high growth targets, and one of the ways we tried to meet these was by buying other agencies, which might then compete with the existing ones. There were also discussions about share of remuneration when clients used more than one of these agencies.

Clearly, things are changing. Not just the future of networks but also the kind and range of work agencies do, or could do. What I had hoped Open might be was an ‘ideas’ agency: that is one where the issues facing the client’s business and brand are looked as a whole. Ideas needing disciplines not within the agency would be discussed with people who have those disciplines and the best available team assembled. Why can’t a good agency come up with new product/brand or service? The questions of payment and ‘not invented here’ would depend on open management and personal chemistry – difficult but not impossible. Another problem is whether clients would pay for it. Many years ago Campaign ran a symposium entitled ‘Ideas beyond advertising’, which still implied that advertising came first. (If every problem is a nail, then every solution is a hammer.) I suggested it should have been ‘ideas before advertising’ – advertising was still likely to be a requirement but with a better understanding of its role in the marketing mix, and an opportunity for agencies to contribute wider ideas.

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Sir Martin Sorrell is clearly a very bright and successful businessman. Initially he was decried within advertising for being an accountant who didn’t understand or care too much about the quality of the work. I never worked with him, but given some of the agencies within WPP, the people in them and the work produced (as well as some of his statements on the need for creativity), that view seems a bit unfair. However, there is no question that he is driven and wants to win.

My only real contact with him was through cricket. He was a dapper, very keen cricketer but a fairly average batsman. The team I played for, largely actors and writers captained by the late William Franklyn, had an annual fixture with WPP. Sorrel would arrive with his chauffeur dressed in whites to come on as a sub in case he had to take a call. It was an all-day game and Martin paid for lunch, I think, but didn’t hang around for a beer at the end. One evening, after a very close win for us, Bill and I were talking and Martin appeared with his scorebook and said: “Bill, I’ve found two extra runs, so it’s a tie.” “Fuck off, Martin,” Bill responded and cancelled the fixture.

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About Giles Keeble

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Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.