Admittedly I've become quite biased on this question. I'm a small marketing consultant running a small marketing podcast talking with other small bloggers. Of course your humble host of The BeanCast thinks that agency networks are evil!
But all that aside, I tried to be impartial as I pulled together this coming week's show. I really wanted to present a balanced debate about the networks. I mean there has to be some good reason for these giant, one-stop shops to exist, right?
Well, seemingly not.
The first indication I had that maybe I would have a hard time finding a balance to my perspective was the surprising and overwhelming support I got when I announced George Parker was coming on my show.
His blog, AdScam/The Horror!, is to put it mildly, "controversial." In spite of my chastising of the 4As over their handling of his comments, I still viewed him as a fringe player. I could not have been more wrong.
Person after person contacted me to tell me what a fan they were of his. And I got a sense it wasn't just his ranting style and his use of expletives. There was something deeper. He was tapping into a core dissatisfaction that a lot of people were feeling with the way things were being run in the agency world.
But more than all this, he was representing for a vision of something better. Working at an agency used to be more about the work and ideas. Now it was all about power and money. And in investigating this, I began to come face-to-face with the myths of the agency network.
"The Clients Want It" Myth
For years the justification for buying lots of smaller shops and combining resources into one-stop shopping was "It's what the client wants. It will give them better service." This myth was heralded as the driving force of the agency network model. "Clients don't want their agencies fight and scheming. They want everything under a single source of control."
Sounds good. Except I now think this is a chicken-or-the-egg argument. There's every indication that the model wasn't requested as much as it was suggested.
The "pain" for clients was indeed that there was lack of focus and cooperation among agency partners. They wanted clear leadership on their accounts. So the bigger agencies, in a bid for control and power, tried to meet the need. Them's the facts, people. The agency network was the ultimate "frenemy" tactic as the agencies tried to screw each other out of business. There was no benefit to client intended.
"You'll Get Better Work" Myth
There are undeniable advantages to being big. Production values scale with control of budget and playing with a bigger pie always delivers flashy excitement.
But anyone can see that the work is not necessarily "better." Quite a bit of the best work in the last 20 years has come from the smaller shops out there. What's more, these smaller shops were working minor marketing miracles with smaller budgets. (Can anyone say, "Mini?") And conversely, when these smaller shops were snapped up by the bigger players, the work would many times suffer.
Now I'm not saying that small shops are doing better work than big shops. What I'm saying is that the individual agency culture has more to do with the work than the size of the network they are part of. And great work is still spread quite evenly among network shops and independents. There's simply no clear-cut creative advantage in size. The only advantages are to the holding companies themselves and they are business and monetary advantages.
"You'll Eliminate Power Struggles" Myth
There is clearly a problem with working with many agencies. Getting them to play nice, share information and respond to central leadership remains near impossible. Each player feels they can do it better than the others and each is always pulling off the gloves behind closed doors with the client. So the proposed advantage of the agency model was the end of power struggles.
Do I really need to go into what we all know is the case? Each individual shop within every network is still beholden to making their own profitability goals for each fiscal year. So while the egalitarian veneer looks pretty at first, it invariably curls up and splits apart under the weight of financial reports.
If anything, the situation became more complicated and political, as the agencies were forced to look for ever more creative ways to jockey for their share of the pie. If there was one good thing about the network model, it would have been this. But if anything, it's been one of the biggest failings of the model.
"All the Best Talent" Myth
Here's the kicker for me. The idea of the network agency model was that in size they would aggregate all the best talent into a single organization.
But what invariably happened after mergers? The talent was laid off, while the management retained power. And now that the economy has gone south, we see even more blatant and egregious examples of managers taking bonuses and preparing retirement packages as thousands of these "best talents" are looking for work.
This is one of the few times that I actually have more respect for the Japanese corporate model where at least the executives would have the decency to resign in shame when the business is tanking. But in the agency world, the least talented individuals in the model fire those with the talent, then hire their friends to "make the work better" with the broken and scarred wreckage of a staff.
It's all About Power
I want to be clear and say again that there is still really good work happening in big agency networks. But I also say unequivocally that none of this great work is happening because it is coming from a network agency.
The network model is about power. Plain and simple. It's about profits and personal fortunes and has nothing to do with the quality of the work. If clients would abide it and if it worked and if profits were rising, every commercial on TV would be Sham Wow in quality and every print ad would have a star-burst. And not a single network executive outside of the figurehead Chief Creative Officer would complain.
So for me at least, it's clear that the networks as they are structured today are actively working against all of our best interests. They are ruining our credibility and something needs to be done quick before everything implodes.