R/GA exodus is another sign of agency identity crisis

All agencies are cutting back in the pandemic, especially perhaps those owned by ad holding companies that have external shareholders to satisfy (who may be less forgiving by the end of the year if they don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.)

Interpublic’s RGA, for so long a trailblazer among digital agencies, is undergoing a startling exodus: CMO Jess Greenwood has departed for Apple where she’ll team up again with former R/GA creative boss Nick Law; six top execs have quit to start their own consultancy, effectively a breakaway. R/GA in the US has laid off ten per cent of its and global CEO Sean Lyons says the company is “repositioning its business model.”

Which may just mean getting smaller as business dries up although Lyons says they’ve won 50 clients this year. Last week R/GA London won United Colors of Benetton.

So there’s clearly life in Bob Greenberg’s old dog still but maybe all agencies have to adjust to a new reality of more project work, lower fees and clients even more reluctant (or perhaps unable) to pay them on time.

Of the departures Lyons goes on to say he is confident that the agency’s (remaining) employees will “build on the foundations they’ve created or create entirely new foundations of your own.”

Which is all fine and dandy but it does rather suggest that some established agencies (and their publicly-quoted owners) are still struggling to find a new identity in a changed world. Perhaps the biggest problem the ad holding companies face is the fact that there’s a whole new generation of clients who don’t know what they stand for, even who they are.

Once upon a time many ambitious clients saw their ultimate destination in the well-paid portals of an ad agency. So they knew who JWT or Saatchi or R/GA were. Their reputations went before them. That, in turn, made them an obvious destination for business and, as part of an elite, able to charge accordingly.

Interpublic has done a better job than most of supporting its agency brands but, like the others, is facing a pandemic-accelerated identity crisis.

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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.

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