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Super-agencies becoming more important

Formed initially in response to the pressures of consolidation and to house conflicting accounts, the super-agencies – or what we at WPP prefer to call the parent companies – really represent the full-service agencies of the 21st century.

In the 1960s if you visited, for example, JWT in Berkeley Square, London, you would find a creative department, a marketing department, an account handling department, a media department and a public relations department. There would be a merchandising department, a direct mail department, a packaging department, a production department, an experimental film department, a market research department and a conference department. Even a home economics department with two fully equipped kitchens – plus an operations research department designing a factory for Mr Kipling's Cakes. Long before the phrase 'integrated communications' came into common use, integrated communications were exactly what such full service agencies provided.

Over time – and as a result of two pressures – these departments became unbundled. Clients sought to reduce costs – and the media and craft specialists within agencies, feeling under-recognised as members of a mother agency's department, looked for greater recognition and reward in free-standing, specialist companies of their own.

Importantly, this involved a split between the creative agency and the media agency, reducing costs from approximately 15% of gross media costs to about 12%. Good media people left and started independents such as Carat, Media Planning Group, CIA and Western International, which grew organically and by acquisition.

The same pattern was seen among packaging, market research, merchandising, PR and other specialist skills. Many such companies have now been re-absorbed into the super-agencies, but in an inter-dependent or autonomous form. Strong media or marketing services functional specialists do not like, understandably, to be subsumed under advertising professionals, particularly when they have enjoyed a taste of freedom.

As the new specialist media investment management agencies have grown in power, new media technologies have developed and the media agencies have developed strong client relationships. The creative agencies have become increasingly discomforted and called for re-integration. This is not possible, in our view; the toothpaste is out of the tube. Media agencies have declared UDI and won their independence. They will not report again to account, planning or creative management.

If clients want better co-ordination between creative and media agency, which in some cases needs to be improved, the best way to do it is by housing the media planners in the creative agency, but with them remaining employed by the media agency. The creative agencies have paid a heavy price for ignoring the importance of media. The medium is increasingly becoming more important or as important as the message.

Today, the new super-agencies have a big opportunity. Clients still require, first and foremost, creativity and great creative ideas. Second, but increasingly, they want better co-ordination (although it is no good co-ordinating a lousy idea). Finally, they want it at the lowest possible price. The challenge is therefore to provide the best ideas in the best co-ordinated or integrated way at the lowest price. To respond to this, the super-agencies will in turn need to focus on attracting, retaining and developing the best talent, structuring their organisations in the most effective way and incentivising their people successfully – qualitatively and quantitatively.

Until quite recently, this might have been seen as a fad, but the concept may now be taking root. Four major multinational clients – three of them with origins or significant parts of their business in Asia – invited the four or five largest holding or parent companies to present for their global advertising and marketing services business. In all cases the presentations included advertising and media investment management, and direct – and in one case research. All these clients were looking for an integrated global solution to their needs and for groups that can offer alternative solutions – potentially a weakness of the single network.

In all four pitches, a group or parent company solution was selected. WPP tribes were successful in two of them. In the third, we were unable to field our strongest line-up because of conflict issues in one of the tribes. In the fourth, conflict was probably a significant issue.

The CEO of one eliminated parent company in the first round of the first pitch declared that this was not a trend. After at least four similar pitches, he has changed his mind and is pursuing a holding company approach. In addition, many other group pitches have taken place – particularly in pharmaceuticals and public relations and public affairs – that have been under the trade papers' radar. The only issue preventing this from being a trend is whether clients can be convinced of the benefits.

The middle of the road is becoming an increasingly difficult place to be, with traffic coming from both directions. Those agencies excluded from the super-agency pitches because they lack the scale and resources must be feeling uncomfortable. Our business is polarising between the very big and the small. In 2007, this trend was reinforced, when a high-tech client called a high-profile competition among the top five holding or parent companies for its advertising and marketing services across the globe. It used over 800 agencies worldwide and spent $1.5 billion on marketing, of which $150 million was on agency fees. The account was bigger than a BBH, a Wieden + Kennedy or a Crispin Porter on its own. The objective is to create a totally new agency for its needs and we are currently doing just that, not only for the anchor client, but possibly for others too.