Let’s bid a not-very-fond farewell to the decade when nearly everything changed

Whether or not you see the decade from 2010 to 2019 as good or bad (or dreadful) depends on where you’re sitting. If it’s at Facebook or Google it was good almost beyond belief as they hoovered up the lion’s share of the booming ad market (as did their Chinese rivals.)

If you were sitting in a conventional creative or media agency (or one of their many highly confusing spin-offs) it wasn’t so good although, interestingly, new Ad Age data shows that employment in US agencies rose from 160,000 in 2010 (the end of the financial crisis) to 206,000 in 2019, a rise of 28 per cent. The overall rise in US employment in the period was 17 per cent.

The nature of the work doubtless changed and that’s probably the reason for the sense of crisis that’s never far away with agencies. A lot of it was churning out and placing digital content, not the kind of activity to quicken the pulses whatever breed of agency you work for.

Arguably the most important event of the decade was the US Association of National Advertisers report in 2016 which appeared to hole media agency margins below the waterline, although nobody is saying on the record quite how. Media agencies were the main drivers of profit at the holding companies and rumours abound of vast sums of money being still being repaid to clients, always just below the non-disclosure level for quoted companies.

Elsewhere creative agencies, with some notable exceptions, seemed to forget what they were there for – to create. They seized on every passing fad to make themselves more ‘relevant’ to data-obsessed, procurement-driven clients, who were not averse to this themselves. Latterly it’s the fashion for so-called “influencers” with agencies seeking to make themselves the middle men between gullible clients and YouTube optimists.

People-wise the defenestration of Sir Martin Sorrell from WPP was the big event; inevitable some might say as SMS had paid himself mind-boggling bonuses. He might point to the much bigger sums apparently due to the founders of, say, WeWork, crash and burn failures. At least SMS has dusted himself off and started all over again with S4Capital.

As we go into 2020 expect fireworks at at least one of the holding companies as shareholders tire of low or non-existent growth and undelivered promises. Some of their struggling consumer goods clients may go the same way.

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About Stephen Foster

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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.