Man Overboard

If there was one thing everybody was sure of about the Bcom3/Publicis deal, it was that Leo Burnett and its Bcom3 sisters had jumped into the last lifeboat as the agency business sailed away for good. There’s room for four big players, tops, the conventional wisdom says. Either you’re part of a globonetwork or you’re the last stegosaurus in the Pleistocene. Everybody knows that.

But who asked everybody? What does being part of an Adzilla with offices in every country but the Axis of Evil really get you, anyway? I’ve worked for three of the four, and I couldn’t tell you what going from big to enormous gets you—or even how it affects what most of us do all day.

Media gargantuosity is the first thing cited. It was impressive to read that Publicis now controls 12 percent of media spending on earth. But think about the other big media story that week—Letterman vs. Koppel. A story that was partly about whether it even matters if networks do news in today’s fragmented media world.

Dominating mass media back in the days of the three networks, as Procter & Gamble did, meant keeping others from even reaching the public. But in an era of boundless choices and infinite niches, it just means you save an extra million when you negotiate all your buys at once. A competitive advantage, I’m sure, but hardly something that would make Napo leon switch careers.

Then there’s global branding. Just think of a billion Chinese imagining cowboys as they puff away. Only a mega-network can make that happen. Except, actually, Leo Burnett built that brand 50 years before becoming part of a mega-network. It’s hard to see how suddenly becoming French improves on that.

It’s arguable how many brands really benefit from a global approach, anyway. Right now, hipness seems to be the fastest way to build popula rity in America—and that doesn’t readily translate. Do the Belgians get Seinfeld? Does Turkmenistan get the retro irony of Old Navy? (Do they really know who Sherman Hemsley is?)

There’s only one form of corporate synergy you can be certain a merger will produce—account conflicts, as Foote, Cone & Belding and Gatorade found out when they were merged onto opposite sides of the Coke/Pepsi divide. If opportunities are opened up by conglomeration, it may be for agencies outside the big four’s tangled webs, not those caught in them. Suddenly being a healthy No. 5 or No. 12 or No. 137 sounds pretty good.

The conglomerates impress Wall Street, deepen corporate pockets to make it easier to withstand tough times (or fatten up the executive suite) and make giant clients feel like they’re dealing with equals. But they can only distract people inside and outside our business from the reality that our success is built on ideas, and ideas have nothing to do with size, except insofar as a giant structure can foster them—or smother them.

Our leaders knew this once. They knew that our business depends on “respect for the lonely man—the man at his typewriter or his drawing board or behind his camera or just scribbling notes with one of our big black pencils—or working all night on a media plan.” As a division of Publicis named Leo Burnett once put it.