In advertising, there’s room for both the big players and the little ones
When the Omnicom-Publicis (or “Omnipube” as some clever folks put it) merger stalled out, lots of commenters pulled an “I told you so.” The truth is, even to most people in advertising, the pending merger didn’t matter to their day-to-day lives. It was a sideshow, much like the travails of Justin Bieber.
I didn’t read or see one opinion, apart from the men who made the deal, stating such a merger was a good idea. Not one. But it was hard to avoid the cloud of inevitability that hung over the deal — the “someday, we’re all gonna work for one of these big-ass conglomerates.” And some folks wondered if independent agencies have any future.
So what will happen the next time there’s a mega-merger announcement? What do independent agencies need to do to stay relevant? What paths are there for ad people who resist the lure of big agency life and the opportunities it seemingly affords?
I’ve worked many full-time jobs and freelanced at dozens of agencies in my career. I’ve worked for agencies at most of the holding companies, and I was there when an agency I worked at sold out to one. No, all that experience hasn’t resulted in fame and fortune. But I have the ability to size up any shop’s strengths and weaknesses after being on site for about a week.
Trust me: If the big get bigger, everything could change, and still nothing would change. The state of advertising mirrors the state of business in general — where nearly every week, a seemingly huge corporate merger gets announced. It’s easy to see why: There’s great power to be found in sheer size. And in the advertising industry, many marketers want the assurance they can put their business with an agency whose range extends from New York City to Papua New Guinea, whether they take advantage of those capabilities or not.
And client conflicts don’t seem to matter all that much these days. As long as two competing brands are comfortably ensconced in different parts of a holding company, nobody seems to mind, even if it is robbing Peter to pay Paul (or Sir Martin, or John, or Maurice). So large agencies and their holding companies will keep attempting to get larger, gobbling up as much as they can. For many ad pros who work in big shops, being part of global concern is still an irresistible lure, a chance to work on a big stage and a great experience.
Inevitably, though, jobs fall through the cracks of the big agencies’ offices. There are hardly any big, big clients who don’t offload projects to smaller agencies, even if agencies aren’t associated with their AOR or a holding company. But for smaller or mid-sized agencies, it’s a delicate balance. It’s hard to get handed a big advertiser’s brand standards book and know you have to conform to a large pile of middle-of-the-road fonts, colors and copy styles. Shops always want to “go rogue” and make their own mark on a brand. Still, large brands bring cachet, and often large paychecks, to small agencies that need both.
(I should also mention that people, too, fall through the cracks. Agency mergers and acquisitions always leave people out in the cold — who often form their own startup agencies.)
But smaller shops do have tougher roads to travel. The weaknesses of upper management are more visibly pronounced and felt. Dysfunction can’t be covered up in layers of process or management. Plus, smaller shops need alliances and partnerships, which involve lots of trust since there’s always a subtext of fighting over the same slice of client pie. And no small agency wants to admit to a client, “we don’t do that” or “we don’t do that sort of thing well” even if they don’t, which in the era of a thousand digital and mobile tactics becomes quite obvious. It’s simply hard for smaller firms to do everything on behalf of a client, and even harder to turn down a piece of business when offered even if it isn’t the right fit.
The good news is that small ad agencies and marketing firms are thriving. Everywhere. You can do business from anywhere in the world on behalf of clients who might be halfway around the world. Admittedly, there’s still a challenge for agencies when trying to differentiate themselves. Now that the amorphous term “content” is what everyone seems to provide, every marketing-related firm is trying to claim a piece of the advertising world for themselves with few points of distinction.
Still, look closely and you’ll see an explosion in smaller firms of all kinds doing work for brands large and small. So whether you work at a big agency or a small one, or you’re part of a global marketer or local advertiser, there will always be a place for what you do. Yes, you’ll have to be great at your job and willing to adapt to changes in the business. But we’re not all going to work for One Big Holding Company on One Ginormous Corporate Conglomerate Account.
That’s OK. We all know these companies are “too big to fail.” Right?