How the giants of advertising can change their fortunes

—For too long, the holding companies sacrificed the magic of creativity for the profit driven efficiency of accounting, says Neil McOstrich—

In 1991, in the lead up to the Barcelona Games, I had the good fortune to present my Olympic campaign to Coke in New York. In the exuberant afterglow of the creative pitch, I was invited to the agency’s executive floor for cigars, port and an awakening I’ve never forgotten.

All the executives, right up through the agency’s holding company, were there. I recall highly polished black brogue shoes and red suspenders (perhaps a subtle nod to Coke). It was the stuff of Mad Men

What immediately struck me as odd was that instead of talking about the ideas we had just presented, the conversation was about moving money around the global network and making money on currency fluctuations. 

I was working for a bank!  

Sure, one that could entice clients with a pretty little flower called creativity, but a bank nonetheless. 

I remember one day checking the stock pages to discover that this Hold Co was trading at a value of one-quarter of Omnicom—for delivering exactly the same suite of services. I realized that with agencies like BBDO, DDB and Chiat Day in the fold, there was indeed something to the creative X factor in Omnicom’s offering.

Great creative mattered. To this day, it’s still the one thing clients can’t replicate themselves.

I subsequently worked for two Omnicom companies in BBDO and DDB. They remain among the most creatively productive and happiest days of my career. 

And this is why seeing the holding companies shedding jobs (or more to the point, good people) globally pains me the most. They were the architects of their own demise. 

Now obviously, Covid-19 has had a massive impact on our entire industry. We all share in this pain.

But to my mind, the holding companies made decisions well before this that are coming back to bite them now. Decisions which, over time, have chased off the magic and creativity clients once sought with the profit driven efficiency of accounting.

My conviction in this isn’t just intellectual musing. I lived through these decisions.  As a creative director, I felt them in the halls years ago, and see their repercussions now. 

Four pivotal happenings stand out in particular

•The first was decoupling the media departments from the main agencies. Now in cards, splitting your 10s is a great tactic. But this decoupling miscalculated the value of collaboration between media and creatives. We respected one another, liked one another, and walking down the hall to share ideas was an integral part of the creative process. (Queue Joni Mitchell:  “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”). I suspect had creative and media not been so unceremoniously separated, we would not be banging our heads against the wall trying to create emotional, six-second storytelling ads today.  

•The next harmful trend was making pitches at the holding company level. When I was DDB creative director, I would often be in pitches against BBDO and Chiat Day. I loved it. And while I could see how some at the holding company level saw this as a waste of resources, they missed the point. The pitch process was about so much more. Deciding things at 36,000 feet was efficient, but it robbed the agencies of the power to turn ideas and adrenaline into bragging rights, and bragging rights into culture. 

•The  third seismic event would be the spinning of digital divisions from the main agency. Again, a splitting of 10s. But it shredded the agency culture. Those on the digital side touted technology without the wisdom of smart agency insights. And the main agency felt as though it had lost the “new” factor needed to win in the market. Had they kept the two together, ideas would have been insightful, creative and deployed in an innovative manner.

•And most recently, we have witnessed the holding companies lusting after companies with technology plays. Data this! Data that! Is anyone talking about insights anymore? This has devalued the importance of insightful, human, brand-building platfroms to the point I wonder if the original Med Men would even recognize their industry anymore?

To the holding companies, these moves were money making, market pleasing glory all the way. Until they became so replicable, clients started bringing it all in house. 

And why not? Agencies weren’t selling anything unique anymore. They allowed creativity to be replaced with efficiency. Very good for a client mind that naturally gravitates to this approach. Very bad for an industry that used to sell what clients could never do themselves.

So, where does this leave us, especially in a global pandemic? With an opportunity, I reckon.

Because as tough as it’s been, Covid-19 has also brought emotion back into our lives. It has created conditions where we are rallying around things bigger than ourselves—the very qualities of the great creative work that built our industry. 

This pandemic has brought a great reckoning in our lives. Let it be a moment of reckoning in our industry too. Repeat after me:

1. Data are not insights. 

2. There can be no emotional storytelling in six seconds.

3. Great creative platforms matter more than ever.

For me, for the persuasive and magical industry I knew when it was at its best, this means a return to human insights and brilliant creative. Our clients need it more than ever. We used to sell it.

We still can if we make the effort.

Neil McOstrich is the co-founder of Cleansheet Communications.

David Brown