David Abbott and the Giant Ad Factory

About 10 years ago, the late David Abbott wrote a memo (remember them?) to his colleagues at Abbott Mead Vickers. The memo is well worth a read. It started: “It’s very hard to become a good advertising agency – it’s perhaps even harder to remain one.”

Abbott went on to decry the trend to throw volume at a problem. His particular example concerned the number of creative teams within his agency set to work on a brief for Volvo. Seven teams had prepared 50 scripts to show to the client – a client that the agency had held for (then) about 20 years and therefore was very familiar with. Running through the merits of having one team fully committed to the problem at hand, the memo concluded: “….the alternative is unthinkable. A giant ad factory where quantity is more important than quality.”

It always used to be parroted that size was essential in media. It’s easy to see the rationale; if you weren’t the biggest you couldn’t use the maximum leverage against the big, bad media owners. There was always a grain of truth in this, as yes volume is clearly important. But what volume buys you, above a louder voice and a bigger stick is access to the best people, and the ability to invest in both the brains and the technology that will ultimately lead to the best tools and thus, one would hope the most insightful plans.

Marry insightful plans with buying clout and you’re off to the races.

But at the same time the ‘size is all’ argument is a lazy one. It’s nonsense to suggest as many did during the farce that was the aborted merger between Publicis and Omnicom that a new, giant Publicom would somehow automatically relegate GroupM to also-rans in the ‘my discount is bigger than yours’ stakes.

It is equally absurd to think that once an agency scales the volume heights to sit proudly at the top of the tree then the competition all suddenly start to achieve comparatively less-good prices from sales teams. Agencies come and go; even GroupM won’t be the largest for ever more; I have little doubt that when that awful day dawns they will still be pretty good at negotiating prices.

There is also the counter argument that it is more affordable for media owners to hand out goodies to smaller agencies than to the big guys. A variation on this theme was promoted by Leo Burnett in Chicago when I worked there in the 1990’s. Burnett’s media operation was amongst the biggest in the US, but they always maintained their real advantage was being in Chicago, and thus away from the industry gossip and the sharing-of-discount stories that infected the New York scene at the time

The concern is that the ‘big is good, so biggest must be best’ argument starts to be believed by those doing group negotiations. Apart from leading to a most unattractive arrogance in behaviour, surely whether GroupM (or anyone else) gets the best prices against some notional, and flaky norm matters less than that they bring together great insight and great prices? And yet in the perennial battle between buyer and planner the victory, and the industry’s focus therefore seems to have gone to the buyer.

This is a short road to nowhere for the media agencies. The problem is that once this becomes a commodity price-driven game then as agencies you have to play it with procurement professionals, who are in many cases supremely good at what they do (and regularly rather better than your average media trader).

How can you win the argument that as an agency you value planning above all else, when you can’t (by the agencies’ own admission) convince anyone to pay you for it?

The large media agencies have invested in good planners, systems and research. In the same way that Abbott Mead as a large agency is able to attract top talent, so it goes with the media agencies.

David Abbott’s point in his memo is that his agency must always believe in its own abilities to deliver what it felt the client needs, which as we all know may not be the same thing necessarily as what the client thinks he wants.

So it should be with the media agencies although here the mantra might be that what’s best for the client is certainly not always best for the agency. It would be a pleasant change if agencies spent more time focussed on how to maintain the integrity of their plans throughout the trading process. Failing to maintain this integrity is setting the agencies back years as advertiser trust is eroded, apart from being behind the general sense of unhappiness amongst staff at agencies, as we said here a little time ago.

It seems clear that fewer people than before want to work in “a giant ad factory where quantity is more important than quality”.

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