John Tylee reports on the dream team set up by Jan Smith for the RAC
Whatever else Jan Smith, the RAC’s strategic director, may be accused of
- and she isn’t without her detractors - nobody has ever claimed she
doesn’t know her own mind or lacks a clear vision for her business.
These are qualities she is going to need in abundance as she sets out
once again to rattle the ad industry by creating a ‘virtual agency’
(Campaign, last week). It’s a risky strategy that will see her hailed as
an innovator if it succeeds, publicly embarrassed if it does not.
Audacious the plan most certainly is. Not since Coca-Cola sent a shiver
down the spines of global agency networks in 1991 by snatching creative
control of the dollars 65 million Coke Classic business from McCann-
Erickson and giving it to the showbiz world’s Creative Artists Agency,
has a major advertiser made such a dramatic attempt to go for the best
possible service at the lowest cost.
While it is not unknown for political parties to create all-star teams
of sympathetic admen at election time, it has been philosophical rather
than commercial considerations that have, until now, bound such groups
Nevertheless, what Smith is planning to do will strike a sympathetic
chord with a significant number of clients who want to step beyond
merely splitting their media and creative supply.
‘Media independents are a manifestation of clients wanting more power
for their money than they thought they could get through one agency,’
David Gwyther, the former managing director of the Showerings drinks
group and a partner in a creative and marketing consultancy, comments.
‘Now they want to buy their creativity the same way.’
Undoubtedly, their ability to do this has been eased considerably by the
burgeoning numbers of creative freelancers available. So much so that
Chris Woollams, the former chairman of the RAC’s one-time agency,
Woollams Moira Gaskin O’Malley, who now runs a ‘virtual agency’ of his
own, estimates that within five years 30 per cent of advertising
business will be outsourced. What’s more, he claims near-deals with up
to three clients keen to establish ‘virtual agencies’ for themselves.
Meanwhile, even the most conventional advertisers are taking note. Peter
Buchanan, the Central Office of Information’s director of advertising
says: ‘I’d be surprised if it wasn’t an area we will want to explore
within the next 12 to 18 months.’
However, it’s equally true that Smith’s initiative has been born out of
a highly unusual set of circumstances. A high-profile maverick client
who delights in tossing away the rule book, she has a record of
embracing controversy-courting advertising.
As the launch marketing director of First Direct from 1988 to 1990 she
employed off-the-wall advertising - a campaign critics claim delayed the
telephone banking service’s success by three years. A stint in a similar
role for Mazda cars was no less eventful, as quirky television
advertising left dealers bemused and irate.
At the RAC she has inherited a brand stuck between a rock and a hard
From above, the AA has trounced the RAC with its ‘fourth emergency
service’ positioning while from underneath rivals, led by Green Flag,
are nibbling away at its market share.
Smith’s response has been to break with convention by coming to an
arrangement with Butterfield Day Devito Hockney that will allow her
access to her favourite creatives, Simon Green and John Dean. Planning
will be contributed by Charlie Robertson’s Red Spider operation, with
media likely to run through Pattison Horswell Durden.
It’s a scheme that will be heavily reliant on the driving force of a
single personality for success. ‘Not many clients would be as brave as
Jan because they don’t have the job security that allows them to be,’ a
business associate says.
Whether or not other clients are ready to follow Smith is another
question. John Hooper, director general of the Incorporated Society of
British Advertisers, says the idea is typical of Smith, but is likely to
appeal only to UK clients with very specific needs.
Will the idea catch on? ‘Most companies prefer to have an agency
contract that not only includes creative work but strategic advice,’
That, at least, is a comfort to agencies, who are reacting with barely
concealed anger that any one of their number should be prepared to allow
clients to pick and mix their best talent.
‘If clients want to cherry pick there’s plenty of freelance talent for
them to choose from,’ Chris Rendel, the managing director of Foote Cone
and Belding, snorts. ‘But I’m running an agency, not a knocking shop!’
Jennifer Laing, the Saatchi and Saatchi chairman, is equally adamant
that she would not permit her best creatives to be creamed off by
advertisers. ‘Clients don’t just buy the people but the culture,’ she
says. ‘We’re strategic thinkers and brand custodians, not a labour
Above all, the fear is that by allowing themselves to be sucked
into a Smith-type arrangement, agencies will succeed only in making
short-term gains at the risk of long-term problems.
Chris Whitworth, the Publicis-FCB group financial director, says: ‘We
believe you can only create good advertising if you put it together
through an account management team. It’s simply the way we do it best.’