When agency holding companies were birthed, they did nothing that directly impacted client businesses. They were corporate entities that owned a number of smaller agencies and the attendant portfolios of real estate, trademarks, copyrights and licenses attached to those agencies. Their primary role was to create shareholder value through structural leveraging.
As time progressed, three things happened that form the basis of the challenge faced by agency holding companies today.
Firstly, aided by low barriers to entry, there was a proliferation in both the number of agencies and the types of functional specialist shops that came to be. In the early days there were “above the line” full-service agencies and “below the line” shops such as sales promotion, direct marketing and PR. Over time, specialists in diversity advertising, shopper marketing and digital media have come into vogue. Highly focused agencies continue to emerge today, as witnessed by the arrival of Amazon “specialist agencies” that assist marketers seeking to do business with or sell goods online via Amazon. Along the way, specialization led to fragmentation and full-service agencies fell by the wayside. Marketers in turn saw their agency networks expand in size as they added specialist firms to their rosters creating a range of agency stewardship and coordination challenges.
Secondly, the holding companies continued to acquire marketing services and advertising agencies. Part of their acquisition strategy involved bringing on specialist firms across a range of competencies to fill out their service offering. Another part of their strategy involved the acquisition of branded agency networks to consolidate activity within select clients (e.g. WPP’s acquisition of Ford agencies J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam) and to create walled silos that would allow them to handle competitive advertising accounts. Financial benefits were realized by consolidating functions and paring expenses in areas such as human resources, legal and finance while allowing the acquired agencies to operate independently in virtually every other area.
Finally, along the way the holding companies began to compete as agencies, creating stand-alone client service entities such as; Enfatico (Dell), Team One (Toyota), GTB (Ford) and We Are Unlimited (McDonald’s). The value proposition with these dedicated agency teams was to provide larger advertisers with scalable, seamless solutions served up by the most talented personnel from across the holding company’s portfolio of agency brands. While the premise was certainly compelling, the holding company model did not readily lend itself to a blended workforce concept and often suffered from the lack of centralized business platforms.
Fast forward to 2019 and advertiser preferences remain unchanged. Advertisers desire breakthrough, transformational business solutions served up on an integrated basis and of course, they want them faster, better and cheaper.
In their search for a better “mousetrap” advertisers have begun to take certain aspects of their advertising in-house and or have engaged non-traditional partners including management and technology consulting firms to augment their traditional agency rosters. Of note, the consulting firms, represented by global monolithic brands, blended workforces, common processes and centralized business platforms have made significant inroads with CMOs. This has raised speculation among many industry pundits with regard to whether or not the consulting firms would supplant advertising agencies. Fueling the speculation has been the management consulting firms’ pursuit of agency acquisitions to round out their marketing/ advertising service offerings, it will be interesting to see how well they fair integrating those acquired firms into their organizations both structurally and culturally.
Many in the industry are waiting for the revelation of a new “agency model” that will emerge to magically address advertiser desires and resolve agency holding company challenges. It is our belief that these pundits will likely be waiting for some time.
Advertisers, for their part, will continue to seek out and retain responsive, agile marketing partners that can provide breakthrough, scalable business enhancing solutions. While the idea of an integrated, end-to-end provider is intriguing, it is likely not feasible. Rather, assembling a team of specialists, albeit narrower marketing agency networks, with the advertiser serving as strategist and integrator across the “marketing ecosystem” as Martin Sorrell, Chairman of S4 Capital refers to it is the most likely solution.
As for agency holding companies, we believe that Arthur Sadoun, Chairman of Publicis Groupe got it right when he stated that “the old holding company model is dead” in April of 2018. Advertisers will not embrace a one-stop solution from any of the holding companies. Thus, the holding companies will likely continue their recent focus on right-sizing their networks through the consolidation of both brands and functions and the divestiture of redundant and non-core entities. After all, how many agencies that place or distribute digital media or in-house studios does a holding company need? There may also be a subtle shift from a focus on cost reductions to enhancing the holding company’s ability to cost efficiently scale operations. This could include an expansion of the old “shared services” model, looking beyond HR, Finance and Legal to create centers of excellence around functions such as Data Sciences, Technology, Media Procurement and Production to provide clients across their network with faster, better and cheaper solutions in these areas.
While many lament the decline of the agency holding company, other than the world’s top advertisers, most organizations hire agency brands. While some of the agencies they hire may be owned by the same holding company, more often they are not. Thus the challenge of finding “integrated” solutions for the development of relevant, quick, agile and engaging solutions has been the purview of marketers… at least since the days when the full-service agency model was the standard. As such, the evolution of the advertising delivery model will more than likely be driven by advertisers and less so by agency holding companies.