Behind POG travails lies a creative leadership battle
A view from Danny Rogers

Behind POG travails lies a creative leadership battle

A war is raging at the heart of the business world. A fierce conflict around creative leadership. It is so fundamental, so all-encompassing, we only notice the key skirmishes.

This is why the fast-unravelling Publicis Omicom Group merger holds such significance. On one level, we see ego-led rivalry in the boardrooms of Paris and New York over financial control, executive power and succession – not least Le Monde’s astonishing report on Tuesday about Maurice Lévy’s superior power in the "partnership" – but there is little else being discussed by the senior managers of the dozens of individual agencies.

Whether it’s Leo Burnett, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Starcom MediaVest Group, PHD, DigitasLBi or Tribal DDB, there is a growing desire to see this whole $35 billion project consigned to the dustbin of history.

This is because few perceive any creative-leadership advantage in crunching these groups together. Omnicom agency bosses are particularly concerned about the introduction of Publicis’ notorious cost-control techniques in order to deliver the promised $500 million of savings to shareholders. Not only does this threaten the looser, lower-margin culture of Omnicom creative agencies but even some Publicis shops, such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty, have so far resisted this squeeze.

Another Publicis agency chief executive recently told me he looked forward to enjoying Omnicom’s lower-margin approach to creative shops, but this is unlikely considering the financial pressure now on this merger.

The Googles and Facebooks are providing the career paths and salary premiums to lure executives away

Draconian agency cost cuts could damage creative cultures and accelerate a nascent talent drain. Where once the best strategic and creative thinkers were drawn into – and retained by – ad agencies, today such talent is increasingly courted by the social and search behemoths and the better media owners. Last week’s defection of PHD’s David Wilding to Twitter is a case in point. As the Googles and Facebooks develop their planning, creative and production offers to clients, they are providing the career paths and salary premiums to lure executives away from cash-strapped creative and media shops.

The growing uncertainty resulting from eight months of pre-merger wrangling is unsettling both the clients and senior staff of Omnicom and Publicis agencies. The harsh fact is that nobody has been able to articulate any real benefits, not least enhanced creative leadership. The only real beneficiaries so far have been an invigorated WPP under Sir Martin Sorrell and anyone else looking to poach key staff or work from POG agencies.

But what happens if/when this merger finally falls apart? With the top executives mortally wounded, would the generals in this creative leadership war be found among the younger generation of POG bosses?