CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/JAN SMITH’S ‘VIRTUAL AGENCY’ PLAN; RAC angers agencies with pick ‘n’ mix approach

John Tylee reports on the dream team set up by Jan Smith for the RAC account

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,’

Hooper answers.

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.’