Winning Without Crowing

Sometimes you just have to accept that despite all the planning tools, the volume and scale arguments, the digital bullshit and the rest, business is won or lost on a word from someone far further up the food chain.

And so it appears to be with O2, an account handled with some distinction in the UK for 23 years (in its various guises) by Zenith Optimedia. It was certainly often quoted by the agency as a client for whom they had done some of their best work and at least on the surface all seemed well.

Then along came Vincent Bollore, whose Groupe Bollore is currently moving to acquire a majority in Havas. According to ‘Campaign’ Bollore had a quiet word with Telefonica’s chairman César Alierta (Telefonica owns O2). And lo and behold the whole account, worth a reported £400m globally and £50m in the UK switches without a pitch into Havas, who it should be noted had pitched unsuccessfully in a review in July this year (a whole 3 months or so ago). This resulted in Zenith retaining the business across Europe, and adding Spain to its country responsibilities – the Spanish business moving from (you guessed it) Havas.

And we all thought that pitches were sacrosanct as the force that drove the ad business. Certainly as the life-blood of the trade press, the reason for existence of an army of new business executives, not to mention the hard-working legions of pitch intermediaries.

Of course we all know that business is often done this way. A quiet word in the right ear, a favour done and returned, the whole thing completed via those at the top without (as would seem to be the case here) anyone else involved. Yes it’s life, but it all seems somehow unfair, and has little to do with the professional abilities of the agencies involved. When business moves like this I can’t help feeling that somehow diminishes and commoditises us all.

It’s not quite the same when an agency decides to use the group CEO as a key asset in winning business. In those cases Sir Martin Sorrell or John Wren (or whoever) are part of a team demonstrating how the agency would add value to the client’s business.

In any event, what the O2 example does is announce that Vincent Bollore, and thus Havas (once he completes the deal to take him above 50% of the business) are real forces to be reckoned with. If Bollore can do things like swing a £400m account then he will be a major asset to Havas. It will be fascinating to watch the response, particularly amongst the advertising elite in France, where Maurice Levy (who’s Publicis does of course own Zenith, as well as Starcom who lost Telefonica business in LatAm as part of the same deal) has for many years reigned supreme.

I’ve always rather liked Havas. They’ve always appealed as an alternative to the giants. There are many good people within the media operation, here and overseas. They have also behaved with some class over this affair. It must have been tempting to claim the O2 win as justification for their approach, or their excellence in one aspect of media or another, which would have made them look a little silly as it seems that these factors had a slim to nil impact on the result.

But as far as I can see the Havas media people have kept quiet. It must be a little embarrassing to win like this – but you know what? Sometimes good things happen. When they do, just shake your head, don’t try to explain it and count your good fortune. And feel more than a little sorry for those to whom sometimes bad things happen when they least deserve them.

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