Adland is up in arms. That is to say, not the whole of adland, but the suits who run it. They're cross that their clients are bringing in procurement specialists to squeeze fees.
I've been aware of something brewing for a while, if only anecdotally, via conversations with my besuited friends. Sooner or later in the conversation comes the glance down, the rueful head-shake, the fiddling with the triple-layered silk of the Lanvin tie, the fingers through the Trevor Sorbie-ed hair, and the plaintive: "You know, it isn't like the old days. Bloody clients are squeezing the life out of us. My margins are lower than a snake's belly in a wheel rut."
Now, suddenly - unprecedentedly - the suits have "gone official" with moves at the Institute for Practitioners of Advertising (IPA), adland's debating chamber, aimed at agreeing a "rate card" - a single rate of fees for all UK ad agencies - as a bulwark against the procurement specialists' inroads.
Ladbrokes would offer shorter odds on hyenas going vegan than ad-agency suits uniting over anything other than the desirability of dancing on each others' graves, so this procurement thing must have struck a very raw nerve. Why so? Well, I think any suit with half a brain (that covers most of them) can see the fat end of the iceberg coming.
Suits don't devise ad strategy, and they don't make ads. They are account handlers who, well, handle the agency's client accounts. This doesn't mean they need to be particularly insightful or expert about any particular aspect of the client or agency's business. They just need to know enough that the client knows they care, and to perform the one crucial task they have: building relationships with the client, building trust.
Since the day the very first ad agency opened its doors, the relationship between a suit and a client has been the agency's foundation. The more senior the client, the firmer the foundation - and the more unassailable the suit's status within the agency.
What has eaten away at this has been the falling status of marketing within companies. Recent decades have seen the corporate rise of the "hard" disciplines, like finance, with fewer corpor-ations electing their chief executives from "soft" disciplines like marketing. Under this pressure, the marketing people who are generally speaking for the ad agencies' clients have had to become "harder" to survive, and more obsessed with numbers and research statistics - more professional, if you like.
In relationships with agencies, these new marketers want direct access to their fellow professionals; to the engine room, the people who make the strategies and the people who make the ads. What they don't want is to be schmoozed or lunched or stroked or in any way "handled" - let alone to pay for the pleasure. They don't want to make friends, they want to make profits. Because most agencies are stuffed with account handlers bumping up the fees, little wonder clients believe they could lose some flab.
Little wonder, too, that by far the most interesting and celebrated ad agency in the UK, Mother, has few if any traditional suits. Highly successful modern agencies like this build relationships and trust with their clients, not at the opera or The Ivy, but via the excellence of their insights and creative output. Amid all the hoo-ha over procurement specialists, you won't hear one voice from Mother.
Meanwhile, the vast number (believe me) of massively-paid ad-agency suits with defunct skills can whinge all they want down at the IPA, but their days of bonhomie, nosh and "Nessun Dorma" are over.
Why clever Trevor should not give an fcuk
Trevor Beattie and TBWA, the agency that he chairs, were recently reappointed by the Labour Party to do the ads supporting its re-election. Some newspapers gave Trevor a kicking when this happened.
One brushed the cobwebs off an ancient quote by someone claiming to be Trevor's old boss, a Murray Partridge, in which he called Beattie 'the nastiest person I've ever met'. Now, I'm not a close friend of Trevor's, but I have known him a while and shared the odd shandy. While he may have a lot of bones in his body, there isn't a nasty one among them. When I checked this out with more than 20 of our contemporaries, every single one concurred.
The other angle of this press attack on Beattie is his custodianship of the controversial 'fcuk' ad campaign, on the basis of which one press commentator asked why Tony Blair was having anything to do with 'the little creep'. Admittedly, the fcuk campaign is polarising: the 'against' pole being principally the middle-aged and older; the 'for' being 15- to 24-year-olds, conveniently, French Connection's target market. Within four years or so of the campaign's launch in 1997, this latter group had helped move the once moribund clothing retailer's turnover from £83m to £226m.
It's this kind of genius that the Labour Party is buying in to, and the other parties doubtless dreading.
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