Friday, November 13, 2009

The "All-Digital-All-the-Time" Agency Network

Andrew Jaffe

Maurice Levy is perhaps the most under-reported, undervalued person in advertising. In the span of 20 years, he has taken a smallish European network of agencies based in Paris and built it into a colossus.

Levy's Publicis Groupe today owns Publicis, Saatchi, Leo Burnett, Fallon, 49% of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Droga5, Starcom, Mediavest and now the digital giants, Digitas, the largest digital agency in the world, with Razorfish and VivaKi, Denuo and on and on.

But though we hear frequently from Martin Sorrell of WPP, Michael Roth of Interpublic and occasionally even from press-shy John Wren of Omnicom, the American business press rarely features Levy. When it came time for Business Week to do a cover story on advertising's current problems, it bypassed Levy for the flamboyant (“Love Notes”), Australian-born CEO of the Saatchi network, Kevin Roberts.

One reason Levy has quietly outdistanced his rivals in terms of turning in solid, quarter-on-quarter revenues and profits, is that he saw the shift coming 10 or so years ago and began buying up digital assets. Today 25% of Publicis Groupe revenues come from digital advertising and media services. Levy saw the future, bet the farm on digital and now is worth careful watching.

A week ago MediaPost.com reported that Levy plans to transform Publicis Groupe into an “all-digital agency.” “We have very good numbers for growth in digital,” he said. “And this is something which is offsetting the decrease of some other activities.”

I've been trying to figure out what Levy means by “all-digital agency.” Was he talking about just letting Digitas and his other digital assets grow and prosper, or was he saying that all his properties were going to become “all-digital?”

And then I started thinking about what that phrase would mean if Levy implemented this strategy across his three big traditional networks, Leo Burnett, Publicis and Saatchi.

If these great monoliths dared to call themselves "All Digital" would they jettison the layers of people still trying to shoehorn clients into big branding campaigns played out in TV, print and radio?

Or did Levy simply mean that he was going to get his agencies thinking digital first, coming up with digital solutions that then could be applied to other platforms and media?

Maybe "All Digital" a new language in branding-so all he was talking about was gaining universal literacy in the new mother tongue. Or is "All Digital" a strategy? Or the natural evolution of where the agency business is going?

When Business Week in the Kevin Roberts' cover story noted the drop in revenues at Saatchi and asked Levy what he was going to do about it, he responded that he wasn't going to do anything about it-that that was Kevin Roberts problem. Quoting Business Week:

[Levy wondered] if a creative agency like Saatchi should continue to manage a client's branding efforts. Perhaps the digital specialists should do it….Levy expresses nothing but affection and admiration for Roberts. But he warns: "It is no longer necessarily the creative agency dictating what's best for the client."

Here I think Levy, visionary that he is, is pulling our leg. Saatchi has a number of major clients-led by global duties on Toyota. Until Toyota is ready to demand an “all digital agency” - I don't think Roberts is ready to change its spots - nor is Levy about to demand it.

Ah me, sometimes we can see the future so clearly. But we have to wait months or years for what we see in our crystal balls to become reality.

Everyone is changing gears as fast as they can, led by clients who helped Internet advertising grow 37.5% in the second quarter of this year. But when and if Toyota is ready to make its big move, say transforming Prius into a separate division rather than a couple of hybrids, will it rely primarily on digital to make the change?

I think not.

I think we are still in the nether world where it's going to take us 10 years or so to resolve these issues. Digital may be a language, which is becoming second nature to all of us. But it may not be a strategy. The strategy still is to create in consumers a need, affinity for, and trust in a brand. We know, then, that the Prius must act a certain way over time - and respond to consumers wherever they connect with the brand, either in an ad, in a call to customer service, in the showroom, on the Web, and (the one Detroit forgot) while on the road.

I think where Levy is going is similar to what Bill Gates did at Microsoft, when he told his charges years ago that from now on everything at Microsoft would be built to live on the Internet. But wait, Windows 7 still comes in a box. You still can buy it in a store (in fact soon you're going to be able to buy it in a Microsoft store). Sure, it must be available on the Web, and everything it does must easily move back and forth within the cloud to other users. But Gates' destination hasn't been reached quite yet.

Setting the right destination and figuring out how fast to go there remains the single most important real-life issue for agency heads, especially now as they re-engineer their agencies and budgets for 2010. Unfortunately there are no hard answers. So they can either follow Levy, and seek to make major changes now, or take baby steps and let the future take care of itself.

All Digital, to me, is an intriguing concept. But tens of thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, and the future performance of the world's most important brands depend on each agency head making the right call.

Sometimes the hardest trust issue of all is the future.

About Andrew Jaffe

Reputation Garage Trustmeister Andrew Jaffe is the former executive director of The Clio Awards and a former editor of
Adweek. His latest book "Casting for Big Ideas: A New Manifesto fo Agency Managers," published by Wiley, lays out why big agencies are slowly dying at a time when new kinds of smaller firms are giving marketers the relevancy and performance they need in today's marketplace.

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