Q&A: Worldwide Partners’ Moffatt

WASHINGTON Al Moffatt, president and CEO of Worldwide Partners, an association of 81 agencies in 42 countries, believes networks are the key to handling client business in the digital age.

Mass collaboration—which he calls the “Wiki Model”—is the only way shops can survive and thrive in today’s marketing landscape of fragmented needs, nervous clients and multimedia platforms, he says.

He envisions building a viable international network, and he derides agencies riddled with explosive egos, internal power struggles and battles to control turf.

Q: What have you learned about collaboration among agencies?
A: I have worked at holding company agencies that, on paper, offer this whole array of resources around the globe. I was amazed at the infighting, the hording of information and the reluctance to tap resources. When I ran the Portland office of Ogilvy & Mather’s Cole & Weber, I found it very difficult to collaborate with other Ogilvy offices. I guess they did not see what was in it for them. When I had my own agency—Moffatt Rosenthal, which was a part of the Worldwide Partners network—we literally got $10 million in business by collaborating with other agencies. The network helped us get the Oregon Lottery, Samuel Adams beer, Revo sunglasses and the game Magic: The Gathering. Our mantra here is: If it doesn’t help our partners gain incremental profits, revenue and personal and professional fulfillment, don’t do it. We turn down a lot of prospective agencies that want to join the network because of it.

What makes a network so different from the more traditional agency holding company model?
People willingly collaborate with each other on a variety of levels. That happens because, frankly, it is their own business and you move away from ego to passion. They grow their business by surrounding themselves with other people. That is typical of an entrepreneur because they realize they can’t do it all by themselves. When you get inside the network of a publicly held agency, it becomes just a job and a battle to move up the corporate ladder, instead of trying to raise the level of your agency as well as the others associated with you.

Can you give an example of the collaborative nature of the network working to a client’s benefit?
We get requests from agencies like, “We need someone to help us with capital fundraising for a client,” or “We need expertise in the commodities category to pitch and win a piece of business,” to “We need help with different communications disciplines like search, interactive, event marketing and package design.” Trumpet Advertising in New Orleans pitched the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau business after Hurricane Katrina. The network provides some collaboration tools like assistance requests and market surveys, which go out to all of our agencies. So Trumpet asked our agencies what their perceptions were of New Orleans after Katrina. Within 48 hours, Trumpet received 760 responses, which showed that the perceptions of New Orleans were far worse than the reality. People thought New Orleans was dead. So they took this [perception] and built a large part of their pitch around these insights. They won the business.

How do you overcome the egos?
The best way to run any network is to drive the bus from the backseat. The agencies are the heroes, not me. We have this bottom upward model. It is an organic, day-to-day business model so our focus has been on “work together, work together, work together.” People are doing it because they realize that they can’t do everything in-house anymore.

Name a client that taught you the most about collaboration.
Revo sunglasses, which was part of Bausch & Lomb in the early 1990s. When I was at Moffatt Rosenthal, they hired us to handle their North American advertising. They liked our campaign so much, they took it to Bausch & Lomb and said, “Let’s do the same thing in Italy, Spain and the U.K.” We said, “Hold on, we don’t think that will work.” So we sent our “See what others don’t” campaign over to our agencies in Europe and we got significant feedback—not about our creative, but about our strategic platform. Our campaign was based on the fact that Revo literally allows you to see better. We tried to make the functional aspects fashionable. But people in the U.K. perceive sunglasses differently than they do in Italy. It’s more functional in the U.K. and more fashionable in Italy. We went back to Revo and said, “We have enough input from our agency partners to say we don’t think we can just rip this campaign off and translate it. We want to go back and do some primary research in the countries by working through our partners in London and Italy.” The agencies in London and Italy put aside their egos and realized what they had to do for the consumer in those markets. It taught me the power of this network and gave me the insight to push back on clients to do what is right as opposed to what is the most expedient or the cheapest. It also taught me to put the consumer at the center of the problem and not the client or the agency. And it taught me to give them the latitude to provide input. You really have to let people be the experts because they have something to give you.

What do you do in your personal time to hone your collaborative skills?
I allow myself the downtime to think. I dedicate every Wednesday to no phone calls and no e-mails and I think. I also run and play the drums. The endorphins from running and the rhythm of the drums help me collect my thoughts about where the marketing world is going.

Where do you think the marketing world is going?
It is 1965 all over again with a 2007 overlay. It is Darrin Stevens in Bewitched. Darrin would write the ads, sell the ads and schmooze the client. He was the global thinker. What agencies need are people who are great global and universal thinkers. They need people who understand how consumers relate to media and messaging—and they also have to have a broad enough understanding of communication vehicles. They need to come back to the client and say, “Let’s invent the solution to your problem,” instead of thinking it will be a formulaic answer.

Is there a media or marketing solution that you most admire?
When Martini, the spirits client in the U.K., had fallen on hard times, they took their problem to 23red in London and asked, “How can we get men back into this brand again?” And 23red came back with a solution by literally developing the Martini One racing circuit in Europe, which is our version of the Nascar Nextel Cup. It wasn’t really an advertising solution or a public relations solution or an event marketing solution. It was a brilliant idea to get men back into the brand.