Why are adland’s top bosses in a muddle over creativity?

Master of the soundbite Sir Martin Sorrell is getting his knickers into something of a twist as he roams the world plugging new company S4C and its first buy MediaMonks. To wit, that he’s not interested in “creativity.”

Sorrell, of course, is blamed by some for downgrading the status of creative agencies in his 33 years as founder and head of WPP even though he built the empire on big deals to buy JWT, Ogilvy, Y&R and Grey. Latterly WPP’s focus was much more on media (where most of the money is) and data (where it wasn’t especially for WPP, but it’s modish all the same).

Digital production company MediaMonks (below) is undeniably creative but, according to many, an attempt to “disintermediate” creative agencies by going direct to the client without all those suits getting in the way. There seems no room for creative agencies as they are and were in S4C’s new world of data, content and technology.

So Sorrell has been telling various audiences that isn’t agin creativity per se but that, in the modern world, ad creatives don’t have it all to themselves. According to SMS there are creative data people, creative media people, even creative journalists and creative financial people (although the latter should undoubtedly be treated with care). He said the same things at WPP but, as the owner of creative agencies and seemingly keen on winning as many creative gongs as possible, he had a fall-back position.

Creativity, in as much as it resides in creative agencies, is undeniably under pressure as Sorrell’s successor as CEO of WPP Mark Read and Publicis Groupe boss Arthur Sadoun have both recently admitted. It’s not producing the returns they both need to get their companies growing strongly again.

But is it the holding companies’ fault? Have they failed to invest in the talent needed to be creative and not promoted creativity strongly enough to their clients?

All the holding companies aren’t the same of course. Omnicom, a company without a strategy according to Sorrel recently, backs its creative networks – most notably BBDO – although they, too, are under the cosh due to relentless financial pressures. Interpublic, after nearly destroying FCB by welding it to direct marketer Draft, has gone back to basics to a degree by backing its biggest creative network McCann.

WPP is taking a different path by plonking digital network VML on top of Y&R in VMLY&R. The ad world thinks WPP’s Wunderman, which Read formerly ran, is about to gobble up venerable JWT in a similar move but Read seems to have bigger ambitions for Wunderman. Whatever, the direct marketers (as we used to call them) are definitely on top.

Consultancy Publicis.Sapient is now, arguably, the most important part of Publicis Groupe in Sadoun’s brave new world. The adworld reckons Sadoun is planning to merge Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi in a “super agency,” albeit a rather diminished one. One reason is to save money, of course.

Ultimately commercial creativity, wherever it resides, is about talent and nurturing talent is about investment and risk. Creativity, by definition, is unpredictable and the rulers of the marcoms behemoths are loathe to invest and fearful of risk. But, in terms of growth which is only going to come from clients who trust them to deliver growth, are they – and Sorrell – looking in the wrong direction?

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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.

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