“No one ever got fired for choosing IBM.” Is that true for WPP today?
It’s a proverb from the last century that meant choosing the biggest is a no brainer. But is the biggest always the best? Especially today in the world of marketing communications.
When we look at the legacy of Martin Sorrell and the future of the ‘behemoth’ WPP, people are asking asking a lot of questions: is it the right model for today, does it service its clients in the best way possible, is it the most pragmatic answer to a world where media has become so fragmented, is it just an opportunistic assembly of high performing agencies, will it be broken into smaller packages and sold off?
Quite honestly, these are probably the wrong questions to be asking. One thing that WPP successfully sold was ‘scale’. Big, it would argue, is beautiful - you need ‘big’ to meet your needs because you are a massive brand, working across the globe.
But - and there’s a huge but coming - big offices and thousands of employees does not guarantee big ideas.
Quite simply, in a global world brands need to stand for one thing. The creative thinking behind that one thing can come from WPP or, and here’s the rub, from a one man band.
The bigger name and the bigger numbers will usually get the brief from massive brands because of the reassurance they offer. WPP, and all of the world’s other marketing giants, can’t help but be the safe option for a marketing director who doesn’t want to explain to the board why millions spent on a campaign didn’t cut the marketing mustard.
As a global brand do you need to appoint an organisation like WPP that offers a whole galaxy of agencies to service every tiny aspect of your marketing needs and service you in every market? Or, do you need to go with just one agency that has been able to identify a big idea, something unique, that will work hard for your brand?
The truth, often overlooked, about massive holding companies like WPP is that the agencies that compose them have their own cultures, they were successful in their own right before they were hoovered up to work under the WPP banner. WPP, an umbrella brand built on a 1980's Kent shopping trolley company, doesn’t do any marketing itself. Instead, it’s true focus is the stock exchange and leaving the real marketing to the experts that run it's component companies.
Do these companies fit together to make one giant seamless offer? No. Do they all have essential 'WPP-ness', whatever that might be? No. Do they break new marketing territory or develop new ways of thinking, or reinvent the advertising and marketing wheel? In truth no more than they did as individual companies.
So, where is the virtue of your agency being big? Arguably WPP is more about the stock investor than the brand client.
My agency is not big - with a mere 18 people versus WPP’s 200,000 - but from our one office in London we have run work in more countries than WPP has offices. For example, we have for the last 10 years run Mandarin Oriental Hotels ‘Fan’ Campaign, which according to Ipsos Mori achieves the highest recall they have ever recorded for any brand. Therefore, I would like to think that small is actually rather beautiful… and nimble and energetic and creative.
What clients need now, in a world where ‘fake’ has become a ubiquitous part of the lexicon, is honesty, transparency, and creativity. According to Mark Ritson agencies make three times more selling digital ads than traditional ads. We make the same from either so are truly objective in our recommendations and we do not mark-up our production costs so we are truly transparent.
Do we really need scale, bums on seats, and giants to service giants? If you are being sold the idea right now, by an agency team that must have arrived in a coach, and think that you need a massive collection of agencies to service your brand then think twice. The shopping list of what you need is really very short: great client servicing, unique thinking, honesty and transparency. And lastly you need a partner that has the same reach as the big boys, but achieves it through applying the benefits of the internet to create new ways of thinking and acting, rather than through the rent-a-crowd principle.
Einstein (famously one man, not a crowd) was always a great fan of keeping things simple… but not too simple. If you think that your global brand can only be serviced by a behemoth with offices all over the world then think again. Don’t be the grey man that bought IBM, be the maverick that bought Apple.
Michael Moszynski is founder and CEO of London Advertising