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Saturday, 01 November 2014

All for one

The stubborn persistence of the recession and the perception that some media agency groups are mere financial constructs that add no value to their clients or member agencies has prompted a new bout of navel-gazing in the marketing services industry. The different approaches groups have adopted to prove their worth ranges from the classic full-service structure exemplified by WPP at one end to a relative minnow at the other like Cogent Elliott, recently voted ‘integrated agency of the year’ by Marketing Week.

Each model has advantages and disadvantages, but all are changing in response to the demand from clients for a more integrated - and media-neutral - solution to their marketing and business challenges. And research and insight are playing an increasingly prominent role in those solutions.

Mandy Pooler, director of communications at Kantar, which includes around 95% of WPP’s research and insight agencies, explains: “Until about five years ago, clients wanted research companies to work separately from other marketing services companies because of the perceived benefits of impartiality and objectivity. That has changed. Not only do clients have far less time to orchestrate things themselves from their vast numbers of different suppliers, they also believe in a virtuous circle of continuous insight feeding into execution.”

That continuous insight informs business strategies as well as marketing strategies, she adds. “In the past research operated in a fairly circumscribed world - for example, campaign evaluation, creative development, benchmarking against norms and so on. But in a world characterised by economic, social and political uncertainty, ‘norms’ are changing all the time and businesses are asking very big questions, like ‘Where is our growth coming from?’”

The demand for insight means that research is, as Pooler puts it, “coming out of the library” and shedding its “worthy, cobwebby, dusty image.” As such Kantar is seeking to raise awareness of what it personally and its constituent research companies (including the likes of Millward Brown and TNS, huge brands in their own right) can offer to clients.

Striking up a conversation

We don’t try to flog each other’s wares or force other group agencies onto clients, but yes, we would like more collaboration

But how easy is it to connect and collaborate among the 13 operating companies within Kantar, let alone the hundreds of different agencies within the WPP group, which CEO Martin Sorrell has described as “a company of 1,000 tribes”? Sorrell has, after all, made a virtue of encouraging internal competition as a way of keeping his agencies on their toes.

It’s a challenge, admits Pooler. “We don’t have ‘directors of synergy’ and we don’t try to flog each other’s wares or force other group agencies onto clients, but yes, we would like more collaboration,” she says. “The way to do that is to create more understanding of what we all do so that we know where to turn to help us solve clients’ business challenges.”

That’s easily said, but far less easily done, and it seems that, despite the huge advantage that size and scale confer, some of the big multi-agency groups are on the back foot when it comes to delivering the kind of joined-up approach that clients are demanding. One buyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, learnt that the hard way.

“One communications group told us recently that they could deliver better integration if we used various group services,” he says. “It seemed, in principle, to be a good thing. But each agency ran different profit and loss accounts, and had different processes and ways of working, so the only way for them to deliver that integration was to have lots of different client services people around the table. I felt that I ended up paying for lots of ‘suits’. I wanted one central point into the agency; I didn’t want to be involved in how they organised themselves behind the scenes.”

What has killed off so many businesses in our sector is failure to develop professional cohesion

The problem, as he points out, is the lack of shared heritage that comes when agencies are forced together. It’s a problem that Cello, the group covering agencies such as Insight Research Group, RS Consulting, 2CV and Face, is well aware of and, over the past few years, has worked hard to try overcome.

“What has killed off so many businesses in our sector is failure to develop professional cohesion,” says CEO Mark Scott. But Cello has adopted a deliberately ‘light-touch’ approach. “The idea is to throw bright interested people together in the hope and expectation that they will see opportunities themselves to work together.” The more they do this, he says, the more likely a group culture is to evolve.

Cello has taken a two-pronged approach to developing this ‘cultural glue’: training and developing its employees in its ‘Academy’ and promoting alumni into ‘Partnership’. This structure brings together people from the different businesses - ostensibly to train, develop and inform them about what is going on in the group, but also with the aim of fostering cross-agency co-operation and collaboration.

The structure goes some way towards addressing the inevitable cultural and financial tensions between individual agency ‘brands’ - several of which are between 20 and 30 years old - and the group.

Jon Bircher, managing director of the MSI Consultancy, which Cello acquired in 2007, says: “As MD of MSI I have to think of MSI first, but the best way for MSI to be highly successful is to harness talent from across the broader business.”

There are examples of cross-group collaboration, but Scott knows that continuous stimulus and greater incentives are required in order to build momentum, particularly in an economic climate where an individual agency’s priority is to focus on winning every brief.

All for show

Some people question whether the much-vaunted collaboration between different agencies within a group is little more than a PR stunt. Tim Pile, who has held a number of agency and client roles, including marketing director of TSB and managing director of Sainsbury’s Bank, is one of the sceptics.

As executive chairman of Cogent Elliott, he says: “We are under one roof and we have one brand and one bottom line. We’ve grown organically and bought people, not companies, so there are no cultural tensions. People are naturally integrated. We did a pitch a couple of days ago and the best digital idea came from a non-digital person. It’s great being able to sit round the table and spark ideas off each other and come up with genuinely media-neutral solutions.”

Whereas in the past marketing directors might have organised this themselves, cherry-picking from different agencies, they are increasingly turning to agencies to do it for them. Because, as Pile says, not only should marketing directors be focusing on strategy rather than acting as orchestrators of agency expertise, but also the siloed nature of client businesses - sales, marketing, internal communications, corporate communications, corporate strategy and so on - militate against an integrated view.

“We can work across all of those,” says Pile. “We’re a family of specialists. Integration never includes everything but we can take the lead on projects even if we don’t do everything ourselves.”

Cogent Elliott does do research – but it doesn’t have a research arm, a research director or even researchers. “I want everyone here to be good at insight,” says Pile. “We regard it as a process rather than a department. We have 220 people - planners, creatives, technology experts - and they are all part of that process. To me the most important research we can do is to walk in the shoes of our customers and understand their challenges, and that leads to strategy.”

Keep trying

It’s vital for research and insight to be a fundamental element of what media agencies do.

Pile may be right in his assertion that full-service agencies are less able than integrated agencies to deliver true strategic marketing solutions, but that isn’t stopping them trying. Over at Aegis Media, the main operating company of the Aegis Group, Mark Greenstreet, chief research officer for the Aegis media brands, explains that a process designed to encourage integrated thinking across all Aegis businesses around the world has been in place for nearly three years.

This approach is facilitated by the fact that Aegis Media has a single profit and loss account in every country where it operates, meaning that individual businesses (Carat, Vizeum, Posterscope, Isobar and iProspect) are naturally inclined to co-operate rather than compete. However, whereas Aegis Media’s research activities used to reside in a separately branded unit, Aevolve, with Greenstreet its managing director, research and insight specialists are now embedded among Carat and Vizeum planners and communications strategists.

The structural evolution reflects the growing need to deliver business value to clients, rather than pure communications measures, says Greenstreet. “Whereas media used to be a subset of advertising - a shop window, if you like - we would now argue that the opposite applies. Media can do distribution, sales, social media, dialogue and so on, which makes it vital for research and insight to be a fundamental element of what media agencies do.”

Break-out moment

Research has a very exciting long tail, which is where the innovation is, not in the body of the monster.

It seems that research is not just coming out of the library; it is coming out of its silo too. Justin Gibbons, founding partner of Work Research, a behavioural economics and neuroscience specialist, sold the majority of his five-year-old company earlier this year to Havas-owned Arena Media. A researcher by background and training, he is now creative director of Arena Media.

“Researchers can be great strategists and creative thinkers if they have ambition and are prepared to stretch themselves in a conducive environment,” he says. Gibbons believes that insight is so important these days “that you have to plumb it right into the heart of the agency”, and he predicts that many of his company’s peers will be sold to bigger groups over the next few years as part of a process of business regeneration.

He explains: “Research has a very exciting long tail, which is where the innovation is, not in the body of the monster. The bigger you get, the more monster-like you have to become in order to survive. We hope that joining up with Arena Media will help to preserve our nimble, innovative approach. It would have been very different to have been taken over by a big group like WPP: what seems to happen in those sorts of companies is that you get woven into an agency and are never seen again.”

However, he says: “Big companies are great training grounds in the disciplines, processes and practices of market research, so people from there make great hires. They join companies like Work Research as a conscious decision about how they want to work. But they can learn a lot about agency development, creative thinking and output and develop transferable skills - which makes them a real asset a couple of years down the line for bigger agencies who want to shake up their culture and innovate.”

Digital explosion

There is clearly more than one way to skin a cat, and, in the absence of academic research into the relative success of different agency group structures, the approach any company adopts can be little more than an act of faith. However, it’s worth noting the words of Chris Ingram, founder of Tempus/CIA, who is widely acknowledged as the architect of the modern media agency.

“The communication world is becoming less and less to do with size and scale,” says Ingram. Structures don’t determine people’s propensity to collaborate - attitudes and financial imperatives do. So are agency groups anything more than efficient business machines? “Whether clients get a better advertising, marketing or sales result is questionable,” he says. “But it’s a bit like capitalism - it’s the least bad system.”

As for clients, they remain pragmatic. Amanda Mackenzie, chief marketing and communications officer at Aviva, speaks for many when she says: “My start point is always to hire the best firm for the job. As long as they start from where the customer starts from and learn and work from there, the structure is academic.”

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