I was struck by WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell’s comment on the marketing services industry at ad:tech this week. “The people who run agencies tend to be of an older vintage – to put it politely,” he said. “They tend to be resistant to change and want to spend the last three to four years of their careers travelling around the world rather than dealing with fundamental strategic issues on a daily basis.”
They should be so lucky to reach “an older vintage” these days. The number of people over 50 who are active in the ad business is a vanishingly small figure, according to Incorporated Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) figures, and it’s getting smaller all the time. One particularly endangered species seems to be the heads, or group heads, of UK network creative agencies.
To take a small but illuminating sample, Gary Leih, group head of Ogilvy (just over 50), and Tim Lindsay, president of TBWA\London (53), have both been put out to pasture recently. We could perhaps add the case of Bruce Haines, group chief at Leo Burnett, who managed to stay the course until the ripe old age of 55. And the comparatively youthful former chairman and group chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, Lee Daley, who moved on in his late forties to an all-too-brief spell as marketing director of Manchester United. While we’re there, let’s tie in the long time management void at the top of Lowe, and the problems in filling the top slots at Publicis UK a couple of years ago when the self-same Lindsay left for TBWA.
To go back to Sorrell, I’m not sure anyone – other than himself perhaps – is capable of dealing with “fundamental strategic issues on a daily basis”. Just one or two over a two-year period is usually enough. As far as I can see, that’s exactly what Daley, Leih and Lindsay tried to do. They all instituted fairly far-reaching management changes in an effort to meet the digital challenge subverting traditional agency structures. With hindsight, the problem seems to be that they were judged not to have gone far enough. Or, put another way, they may indeed have embraced a “fundamental strategic issue”, but they were not allowed long enough to savour their triumph. The truth is, if an agency doesn’t bring in enough big business in the first two years of your tenure, you’re likely to be turfed out in the third. The digital challenge may simply have made it a little harder to win that business in the first place.
Lindsay was probably on skid row once his agency lost the advertising account for McCain to Beattie McGuinness Bungay. He was lucky to survive the subsequent – abortive – attempt to buy BMB. Nissan had also begun to look shaky. Pinning the Media Arts rebranding fiasco on him sounds like the thinnest of subterfuges employed by a management that had long since lost confidence in him – fairly or otherwise.