Close-up: Live Issue - Are traffic divisions still key to ensuring creative excellence?

Ben Langdon's changes to traffic have divided adland opinion.

Utter the phrase "I work in traffic" at a dinner party attended by non-advertising types and you're likely to be met with dirty looks followed by the backs of heads as people turn away to talk to someone they haven't confused for a parking attendant.

Within the agency world, it's a different story. Although much of what traffic managers do is behind the scenes, the general consensus, particularly among creative directors, is that they are crucial to the flow of work through the agency.

A strong traffic department tends to go hand in hand with a strong creative reputation, as demonstrated by the likes of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, WCRS, HHCL/Red Cell and Lowe.

So when the Euro RSCG London chairman, Ben Langdon, axed all but one of his six-strong traffic team last week, he raised not only a few eyebrows but the question of whether there is still a need for the traditional traffic department in agencies today.

Langdon's new model sees the agency's remaining traffic person redeployed at the right hand of the executive creative director, Nick Hastings, in the role of director of workflow.

The rest of the day-to-day traffic duties - including organising briefings, liaising with creatives and handling internal reviews - are being given to junior account managers who have been renamed project managers. The aim is to create a leaner structure that gives clients faster access to the right people.

"The traffic function has just changed, it hasn't disappeared," Langdon says. "It's just getting rid of a department to make it flatter."

He denies it is about cost-cutting, saying it will free up resources that can be redirected to the creative and account handling teams and that it is part of his ambition to improve services to clients in an ever- more-competitive industry.

Hastings explains: "From now on in this agency, people who have direct contact with clients will talk directly to creatives about when work is needed. This is good for clients. Equally, people who have a close understanding of creatives' workload and time pressures will be talking directly to clients. This is good for creatives. Everybody wins."

However, the fact that Euro's account handlers will have little or no experience or skill in managing traffic is perplexing the discipline's fans and the decision is being greeted with words of caution.

The WCRS executive creative director, Leon Jaume, thinks account handlers should concentrate on what they're good at. "The key role for account managers is that they are fully informed business partners to clients," he says.

Clemmow Hornby Inge's creative director, Tony Barry, believes Langdon is underestimating the skills of traffic managers.

"A good traffic person understands art buying and has good contacts. They will be able to not only make sure everything's on time, but will suggest good photographers," he says.

Others are alarmed by the notion that an agency can operate efficiently without experienced traffic people. "Traffic takes the administrative pressure off account managers, which allows them to foster the client relationship and smooth the process from client to creative," Bruce Crouch, the creative director at Soul, says.

And Robert Campbell, the executive creative director at McCann Erickson, believes diverting resources from traffic into account management could be fatal.

"It's like removing the heart from the agency. And you know what happens when you take the heart out of something," he says.

The idea of an agency without a physical traffic division is not a new phenomenon, however.

Three years ago, Lowe rearranged its traffic department, giving responsibility for workflow to junior account handlers, but reverted back to its more traditional structure within months.

Mother, to which Langdon likens the new Euro structure, successfully manages without one. But the difference between the two agencies is that most of Mother's project managers have been spawned from traffic backgrounds.

Part of Langdon's ambition is to educate his account managers in the art of ad production.

"It makes account management more aware of what goes into getting an ad produced - the modern generation doesn't know how that works. Twenty years ago account men were expected to know production specifications, but the emergence of the traffic department has stopped that," he claims.

But despite scepticism about what Langdon is doing, it will not have been entirely unexpected, as he is under pressure to improve the agency's performance following a lackadaisical post-merger period. His target is to increase revenues by 50 per cent in three years.

As Langdon excels at account management, it is in this area that he tends to concentrate his efforts. He hauled his last agency, McCann Erickson, up from 14th place to second in London (ranked by billings) during his tenure by cutting creative resources and beefing up its client services.

Given this legacy, it is perhaps understandable that Langdon's changes are seen primarily in the context of cost-saving rather than improving the creative product.