Straight talk

Do clients care who wins AOY? Not really, but that doesn't mean to say we can't learn something useful from the exercise.

Do clients care who wins AOY? Not really, but that doesn’t mean to say we can’t learn something useful from the exercise.

What struck me was the makeup of the shortlist. With the exception of DDB and TBWA, all the other nominees were much smaller, nimbler, more ‘creative-focused’ hot shops.

So does this mean that the era of the massive multinationals is drawing to a close? Possibly. Remember Masius? No, me neither. But I do not believe that the big agency is necessarily entering its death throes. In fact I strongly believe that there will be a resurgence.

Not that I believe agencies such as Rethink, Zig and Taxi aren’t doing great work; they fully deserve their place in this year’s pantheon. There is a common pattern behind their success: The principals are exceptionally talented individuals who you get personally focused on solving your brand issues – which is all the process ever really needed anyway.

Client cries for help along the lines of: ‘The old model is broken!’, ‘Fire the handlers!!’ and ‘I just want to interface with the creatives!!!’ are a reflection of the big agencies forgetting this fact. They all put too much distance between their really bright people and the client’s issues – both physically and procedurally. Then many stopped investing in attracting and developing really bright people.

But the issue I see with the smaller principal-centric agencies is one of scalability. The more business they win, the harder it is to apply their model. They win a big account and they immediately have to scour the street to scoop up bodies as fast as they can; then they become less like the agency they were, and more like the agency they despise. So, mostly, they decide to stay quite small. Nothing wrong with that, but of limited use to the mega-buck clients.

Aha, I hear you say, just because there are, and will always be, a raft of award-winning hot shops too small to take on complex

$20 million accounts does not necessarily equate to the big agencies surviving by default. And you are quite right. They have to change to survive. Most haven’t cottoned on yet, but some are already on the way, one in particular being Leo Burnett.

I like the Leo Burnett brand – always have.

I think they have the most distinctive culture of the big agencies – one that results in really bright people staying there for longer than average; still supported by second-to-none training and development.

Of course that’s not enough these days. But they are crucial attributes which, coupled with some dramatic internal process changes that get the best brains working on the brand idea up front, and a genuine no-silos collaborative style across functions, internationally and with the client, are already supporting a turnaround. The standard of the creative under SVP, managing partner and CCO Judy John has improved each year; the agency’s best brains are, in my opinion, better than most, and its size and culture means that the model is very scaleable.

Not that the short-list voters would be very aware of all of this since many of Leo’s recent successes have come from winning business in the U.S. Heinz Ketchup, P&G’s Cheer, Bounce and Gain brands, plus 50% of Kellogg’s kids brands’ digital business are all now run for the U.S. from the Toronto office. Excellent for our cross-border trade surplus, but not the best way to win awards in Canada.

My final reason for looking to the likes of Leo Burnett is that 50 of my peers are looking to the likes of Zig and Rethink. I’m not saying they are wrong, but since when was marketing about following the herd?

Twenty-plus years of marketing was enough for John Bradley; he left to do other things which interest him. He doesn’t write this column to pitch for work, but is just trying to help the next generation of marketers simplify an overly complex profession. He values and responds to feedback at