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Up With People

  • September 3, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT
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I recently had an experience that convinced me there is something very wrong with the present status of the advertising business. I was running an ANA seminar titled "Creative Adver tising." In attendance were 15 clients from a variety of major national advertisers, with titles ranging from advertising director to brand manager.

In the course of our discussion, I asked the group to tell me the names of the agencies they were working with. The first answer was, "We work with IPG," and the second reply was, "I work with an agency that's part of Bcom3."

I was stunned. In all my years as an adman, I considered advertising to be a personal-service business, not an impersonal corporate activity. I remember, years ago, a receptionist at Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver asked my permission to allow her to answer the phone, "LHS&B." I refused, explaining that it was important to retain the personal identity of the partners.

Now I wonder whether the new emphasis on the corporate holding company may be having a negative impact on creativity. There seems to be more attention paid to the price of Omnicom stock than to the creative output of the agencies that make up the corporate whole. Consider all of the time, talent and energy that has been put into the restructuring of IPG. When top management is busy with internal meetings, reports and financial statements, there isn't much time left for developing creative energy and leadership.

The creative strength of an agency is not solely the responsibility of the copywriters, art directors and producers. Top management has the responsibility to provide the leadership and passion for great work. And this passion must be conveyed to every department of the agency: media, sales promotion, marketing and account planning.

Where is the corporate leadership that helps give an agency this kind of creative energy and per sonality? When Leo Burnett is known as Bcom3, the business has lost one of its most important attributes: the power of the individual. People like Mary Wells, Carl Ally, Bill Bernbach, Marty Puris and Jay Chiat brought excitement to the business, as well as great advertising to their clients.

It's time for the agency business to take the spotlight off the corporate holding company and bring the business back to how it started—as a personal-service industry that developed its own creative re sponses to client's problems. The great agencies were built by individuals who helped create a personality for the entire company, and that personality was reflected in the work they did for their clients. Bruce Barton would not want his agency's name changed to BBDO, and Bill Bernbach always insisted that the receptionist answer the phone with the full name of the agency rather than "Doyle Dane." (Let's face it: That reply left his name out.)

It's not too late for agencies to begin to build their personalities around the individuals who really do the work.