There was a glorious piece of mischief deep in the international companies section of the Financial Times last week. "Unilever in advertising shake- up," the headline trumpeted - a few words to strike fear into the hearts of more than a few senior executives.
For instance, the management of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, JWT, AKQA, Lowe, Agency Republic and a clutch of Ogilvy units. Plus MindShare and Kinetic, obviously. And not forgetting the ultimate boss of many of these agencies, Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive and chairman of WPP.
The headline signposted comments made by Alan Rutherford, the global media director of Unilever, and he wasn't toting a smoking gun but something more in the nature of an abstract critique. For the time being, at least.
Rutherford's view was, in an evolving media world, where the challenge is to think beyond TV, marketing communications agencies are struggling to keep up with the demands of large advertisers. They are, he suggested, failing to embrace the likes of PR, paid-for content and digital in a coherent fashion.
And he revealed that, in the absence of a big-picture strategic vision emerging from his agencies, he was considering setting up internal teams to help generate integrated ideas.
Unilever is not alone in starting to question the quality of the brand communications thinking it is receiving from its agency partners. For instance, Jim Stengel, Procter & Gamble's global marketing officer, has pondered similar questions recently in trade publications on both sides of the Atlantic.
Do they have a point? Absolutely they do, Simon Mathews, a partner in Rise Communications, argues. Rise exists to fill that particular gap, he points out: "If the big agency groups were serious about solution-neutral thinking, they would admit they can't service that sort of requirement out of mono-disciplined silos, with labels like advertising, public relations, events, media buying. These silos can't reconcile truly solution-neutral advice and their own financial self-interest. The big groups have everything a client could possibly want, all the tools in the box, but (the groups) are incapable of arranging these tools in a coherent fashion."
Some large agency sources, although declining to take part, disagree with that sort of line. Some attempt to occupy the moral high ground, arguing that, by and large, advertisers get exactly what they deserve from their agencies.
They add that if a client, for argument's sake, conducts a pitch process designed to save money as opposed to increasing value, then it can't complain if it fails to get Rolls-Royce-quality strategic vision thrown in for free.
Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive, Europe, of OMD, takes a slightly more subtle tack. He says: "Large media agencies are certainly aware that there's a global climate change in media and that it will have massive implications for the way agencies are structured and paid. As a result, there will be more rigour and transparency in that relationship.
"But it's also true that there are still clients who are too comfortable with the old paradigms - and when it's your turn to get up on stage, they still demand you answer the same old questions before you can proceed. There are no black-and-white answers to this."
Jez Groom, a partner at the communications planning start-up Edwards Groom Saunders, says there's some truth in what Gottlieb says. He explains: "Sometimes, structures and agency agendas can get in the way of integrated agency thinking but it's a two-way street - if clients want integrated solutions, they need to remunerate agencies more by the value and effectiveness of their combined thinking rather than the time it takes the agency delivery system to get it into the market."
But he still maintains that some agencies are lagging behind. Iain Jacob, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest EMEA, believes that's too simplistic a conclusion. He says: "Debates such as this tend to start at the wrong place - about how groups structure themselves or whether new types of agencies can satisfy advertiser demands. What clients need these days is joined-up thinking - all the consumer knowledge they have gained put in one place and used effectively. Then a consideration of all the possible touch-points. But agencies can only deliver if they are given the brief in a coherent way. But, with one notable exception, clients are not geared up to do this."
YES - Simon Mathews, partner, Rise Communications
"To offer a real media-neutral strategic vision, big agency groups would have to tear up their existing structures. But it's far too difficult for them to do that, so I suspect they'll pay lip service to it."
NO - Colin Gottlieb, chief executive, Europe, OMD
"Large media agencies are already ahead of the game in terms of working with those clients that are progressive in their thinking. It's a challenge both for agencies and advertisers and some are getting there faster than others."
YES - Jez Groom, partner, Edwards Groom Saunders
"The agencies that will succeed are the ones that not only harmonise both the content and context of the message, but also underpin the creativity with a quantitative rigour, one that places a commercial value on the marketing investment."
NO - Iain Jacob, chief executive, Starcom MediaVest EMEA
"The clients that can structure themselves to brief in a joined-up way will get the best out of their marketing services groups. The truth is that most clients are not - with the exception of some major international advertisers."
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