Friday, March 02, 2007

When the walls have ears

The current advertising agency landscape in the world is such that many large clients have the clout to demand its agencies do not take on competing accounts -- but considering most large agencies are owned by the big five networks, surely information gets leaked?

For large global accounts like Samsung and HSBC, it is not uncommon for the world’s largest network WPP to handpick its best talent across agencies and field them in pitches. And because of this strategy, WPP puts itself in excellent stead to win these accounts.

Again this strategy has come into play recently, with WPP forming an initiative named Gold to go for the Singapore Airlines business. Gold is led by the Asia Pacific heads of Ogilvy & Mather and Bates.

In this day in age, where technology has revolutionised the way and speed in which we communicate, the ability for service providers to customise their offerings to individual clients is key to keeping them in business.

No one can fault WPP or Omnicom or Interpublic or anyone else for doing business this way.

However, the inherent problem in such ‘team’ arrangements is that the experts being partnered together like a jigsaw puzzle inevitably, in their respective agencies, work on different accounts from each other and surely some are competing ones.

Which is quite an oxymoron considering networks try their darnest to retain large clients, going to the extent of setting up new divisions for a brand which it wouldn’t normally be able to take on because it is already servicing that brand’s arch competition. They go to great lengths to assure clients that their organisations are ‘water-proof’ – no secret information pertaining to one brand will leak to the other because it’s an entirely SEPARATE staff working on the two.

Come on, this business is a people business and people talk. That’s just the way it is. What’s stopping the creative director working on Nike and the one on Adidas to accidentally let something slip during their Friday pub sessions? Afterall, everyone knows everyone else and after a few drinks… you know…

I had the privilege of spending a morning with global creative chief of Leo Burnett, Mark Tutssell, last month, and he was pleasantly surprised at how the Asian advertising types hang out after work, everyone knows everyone else, and it is close-knit community. He compares this with his experiences in the UK, where he says people rarely socialise beyond their own agencies.

This may seem weird to Asia, and I really do like the fact that our CDs hang out with each other, but perhaps in the perspective of over-sharing information, London may have got it right.

If you recall, I spoke with Batey Ads founder Ian Batey a few months ago and one of the things he brought up was this issue. He says, all the major agencies in the world report to that same handful of chiefs from the big five. So regardless how information leaks on the agency level, all ‘secrets’ are revealed to the network bosses so there is no air-tight scenario.

Batey even went so far as to suggest a future scenario where the biggest of clients decide to enforce that, regardless of the agency it works with, that agency’s entire network is not allowed to take on any competing brand.

He says this will force a lot more business out of the networks, allowing many more smaller networks to be established, creating more jobs for advertising, encouraging more entrepreneurial behaviour to cater to demand.

Sure, this ‘solution’ may be rather idealistic, but it is a good starting point to consider how we may progress from today’s network monopolies, and address how to better protect competitive information.

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