EDITORIAL: 'Play safe' attitude will stop creativity

It's hard not to read Bob Willott's analysis of the world's communication supergroups (page 15) without shifting uncomfortably in your seat. References to operating margins, revenue growth, share options borrowings and reward packages pepper his report. That, of course, is a natural consequence of a global industry in the final throes of consolidation. It's also a welcome indication that a business ridiculed and criticised by clients for its unbusinesslike habits appears to have mended its ways.

So why the unease? Perhaps because the industry, which has always been suspicious of "corporateness and has relied on youthful energy, innovation and creativity to drive it forward, is now in serious danger of strangling its golden egg-laying goose and playing it safe. Networks have been forced to attune themselves better to client needs and to create a range of services which would insulate them when adspends fell. The pressure to satisfy shareholders has only accelerated the process.

That's all well and good. But, as Willott rightly points out, the emerging supergroups now have new and different problems to confront. "One-stop shopping will only remain attractive to clients if quality remains consistent across every division. Willott also highlights a potentially worrying trend of group boardrooms becoming dominated by non-executive directors.

The experience and knowledge such people bring with them can be enormously useful. But care needs to be taken lest the communication chasm between the strategists and those pulling in the business becomes too wide.

This could be highly damaging at a time when getting the management structures relevant, flexible and forward-thinking while keeping the creative product potent has never been more important. For one thing, there's a limit to the heavy use many clients are already making of diversified offerings.

For another, there's the very real prospect of fewer business opportunities as slow growth in domestic markets and rising marketing costs force multinationals to rationalise their portfolios.

A time to bury bad habits, you might think. Try telling Ed Meyer. The beleaguered Grey Global Group's 75-year-old chief executive has secured a retirement deal allowing him to retain a suite at Grey's offices, two secretaries, a chauffeur-driven car, dining facilities and a $100,000-a-year expense account. He earned $3.6 million last year. Stories like that must leave clients wondering whether parts of the industry remain determined to go to hell not in a handcart but a silk-lined bathchair.

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