George Parker: why the creative exodus to clients could spell doom for ad agencies

As some of you may know, I have been in the ad biz since before Genghis Khan invented the USP. So, I’ve seen a lot of changes, some good, many not so good. Back in my Mad Man days we created ads using typewriters, carbon paper, layout pads and Magic Markers. But mostly it came down to creativity fuelled by three Martini lunches and if you got lucky, “Matinees” with members of the typing pool.

Even back in those days we had to bear the cross of research. If you worked on P&G, focus groups were your guide. If you worked on anything at DDB, Bill was your inspiration. There was no “data” as such, we didn’t need it and we wouldn’t have understood it. Over the years ad agencies “conglomerated” into holding companies, all publicly traded and run by bean counters who were more concerned with the quarterly numbers than the quality of the work. Then came digital, closely followed by social.

We no longer tried to persuade the great unwashed masses with clever advertising… No, we now created “touch points,” pursued “clicks” and engaged in conversations. As usual, it was mostly bullshit. Particularly as no one could actually prove the effectiveness of all these things. Then, in their wisdom, the holding companies came up with the brilliant idea of creating dedicated agencies formed for the single purpose of handling a single client. Perhaps the best example of how this idea was totally fucked up was when WPP’s Sorrell, in his wisdom, created Enfatico to handle Dell.

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This required hiring thousands of new employees, working out of ten far flung global offices. As usual, we were told that Enfatico was the “Agency of the future.” That this would be achieved by knocking down walls and blowing up silos. To emphasize this Enfatico ran numerous self promotional ads featuring wrecking balls and sledgehammers. Unfortunately, in its entire existence, it didn’t produce a single campaign for Dell. After two years,

After two years The Poisoned Dwarf shut it down, sweeping the remnants into a Y&R broom closet, whilst continuing to trouser his mega million quid pay check. And now, as MAA reported just a couple of weeks ago in “Does W+K’s McDonald win herald the end for bespoke holding company agencies?” The answer is an emphatic… Yes. It would seem that like Enfatico, the Omnicom kludged together “We Are Unlimited” will be tasked with picking up the pieces from all the knocked down walls and blown up silos.

As is usual, all the remaining agencies in the holding company will suffer from the cost cutting and “efficiencies” required to pay for the fuck up. It is also telling that the agency McDonalds gave the business to is the only major agency that does not labor under the holding company yoke. Finally, what I consider to be the most dramatic change of all… The ever increasing exodus of top creative talent from agencies to clients.

Back in my day you would have choked on your third martini at the very suggestion. The reasoning behind this rejection was simple and straightforward. If your paycheck is being signed by the very guy you are presenting to and he (very few she’s in those days) doesn’t like what you are presenting you are not going to tell him that he’s full of shit and wouldn’t know a good idea if it hit him in the head. ‘Cos if you did, you’d soon be back on the dole.

There was also the then valid argument that working on a variety of accounts, rather than a single one would keep the creative juices flowing. To me, this ever growing tsunami of senior creative talent departing from ad agencies to work in-house with major clients is perhaps the final nail in the ad agency coffin lid. The real Mad Men must be spinning in their graves.

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About George Parker

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George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.

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