|Are Agencies Playing Nice These Days?
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
As a student, we learned how networking and rubbing shoulders within the advertising and communications industry was important, if not crucial, to being a successful professional. We learned that the industry was a small world, and that keeping the reputation you want intact was necessary, since "people talked." We needed to network and mingle because that is how we were supposed to learn what was going on, who was doing what, going where, and so on. We learned too the delightful phrase "conflicts of interest," and if agencies fell into that hole, where else would that business go? We learned that it was to our benefit to play nice, because if conflicts of interest arose, instead of going through a bid process, that prospective client or brand would be sent to an agency based on a recommendation or referral. Playing nice opened doors that may have been previously closed, or hidden.
Do we see that today? That is a tough question to answer.
We are seeing a battle rise between the communications holding companies and the network of small agencies. Let's use the word "network" loosely, for many of the successful small agencies have connections (whether formerly employed or resourced from) with the bigger powerhouses. While we're at it, perhaps we are giving too much credit to the small agencies in calling it a battle. Conferences, panels, workshops, and think tanks popping up about the plight of small agencies show that many are losing. The cry for more creativity and talent shows that the advertising pool isn't as deep as it formerly thought it was. With little diversity of ideas and creativity, with the lack of new players coming to the table, can it be said that agencies are not playing nice?
Maybe it is the culture the holding companies have cultivated. We hear time and time again that an agency has lost an account, just for it to be moved over to an agency in the holding company's portfolio. It has now become the big deal when a WPP agency loses an account to an Omnicom or Publicis agency. Bigger still is news if a brand quits a holding company and ventures out to an independent agency, or *gasps* takes their work in-house.
If we continue to stick with the hypothesis that the advertising industry was once congenial and is now otherwise, it wouldn't be hard to combine this multitude of factors to explain the current secretive, closed-door, aggressive environment we now find ourselves in. The holding companies have created, similar to the consumer market, little networks within themselves. With resources a-plenty, there is no need for those agencies to "play nice" with others on the outside. The incentive to know, like and associate with those outside professionals is lost.
One would assume then, if the big guys are together, small agencies need to stick together in order to survive and combat this unwelcoming environment. One would think that scavengers would join together so all could eat some, rather than some not eating at all. Here lies the joy of free enterprise, where the desire to be top dog reigns supreme, and rationality takes a back seat. Point being, small agencies are the ones that need to play nice, and it seems that it is far from the case.
Collaboration, and "collaborative agency models" have taken hold over in Europe, in creative havens like Amsterdam. But in the United States, the "birthplace" of modern advertising, that model is finding some difficulty, since that kind of sharing mindset goes against the winner-take-all system currently in place.
Will we see a shift in thinking, and agencies will decide to enjoy each other's company again in a competitive yet amiable fashion? Or, will the collaborative model be considered a "conflict of interest"? Only time will tell.
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