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Holding Co. CEOs (Mostly) Agree on Key Issues

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Dan Wieden must be laughing. Asked today to name an agency outside of their own that they most admire, the CEOs of WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic all pointed to Wieden + Kennedy, an independent that has vowed to never sell to a holding company.

The question arose during an hour-long panel discussion at the 4A’s Transformation 2011 conference in Austin,Texas. Led by Johnson & Johnson’s Brian Perkins, the sit-down represented a rare gathering of three men whose companies collectively generate some $35 billion in revenue annually: WPP’s Martin Sorrell, Omnicom’s John Wren and Interpublic’s Michael Roth.

Each boss is distinctly different yet agreed on many core issues, including media unbundling, the value of organic growth, the need to invest more in recruitment and the importance of expanding digital capabilities. It was no love fest, though. Sorrell and Roth in particular mixed it up on the topics of talent development and investing in companies that own media properties.

Roth cautioned that making investments in media owners could conflict with his agencies’ responsibility to be agnostic when advising clients on where to place their ads. Sorrell (and Wren), however, said that as long as such deals were transparent and fully disclosed, there’s no problem.

And while the trio agreed that the industry needed to do much more to find, train and nurture—as opposed to poach—talent, Roth took issue with Sorrell’s insistence that their respective boards must include chief talent officers. None of their boards currently do and Sorrell pointed this out as an example of how the industry falls short, particularly compared to other industries.

Roth, however, noted that he recently promoted his head of strategy, Philippe Krakowsky, to steer human resources as proof that the recruitment and retention of talent is a top priority for IPG.

“I think we pay lip service to it,” Sorrell said.

“Well, maybe you do. We don’t,” Roth shot back.

Despite Perkins’ belief that clients might be better served if creative agencies rebundled all media services under one roof, Wren, Sorrell and Roth expressed no desire to dismantle their stand-alone, specialist media shops.

“The unbundling is actually a positive thing,” said Wren. Sorrell added that “specialization is best,” because “whether it’s the medium or the message anymore . . . the medium has become much more important.”

When asked what clients need to do to get the best work, the CEOs’ replies were remarkably simple and underscore the humanity of enduring client-agency relationships.

“Trust us,” said Sorrell.

“Pat somebody on the back,” said Wren, noting that a simple thank you for a job well done serves as a great motivator for agencies. He added that clients should give agencies the permission to fail.

Roth, in turn, stressed the importance of working in partnership. Picking up on that theme, Sorrell quipped: “At least junior partners. Not equal partners, but at least junior partners. Not suppliers or vendors.”

Related coverage: Unilever's Weed: Brands Must Be Made Into 'Media Properties'

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