Stuart Bowden
Stuart Bowden
A view from Jeremy Lee

Jeremy Lee: Why agency world still sees itself as a people business

The recent rehiring of Vizeum's Stuart Bowden by MEC as its managing director has attracted rather more interest than usual, not least as it comes mid-pitch for Vizeum on BMW and Eurostar.

While Bowden is merely returning to an agency that he left just over one year earlier, other competing agencies have seized on his move which, they hope, could potentially destabilise Vizeum's otherwise impressive pitching process and perhaps give its prospective clients a slight attack of the jitters. Well, they'll be trying to give them that impression anyway - and Vizeum itself appeared to get into a slight panic mode when rumours of his imminent departure started to emerge.

Of course, MEC's likeable chief executive, Steve Hatch, is too much of a nice guy to say that a desire to do this was part of the motivation for him poaching him back - he would have hired him regardless, as Bowden is apparently one of the more interesting planners of his, admittedly relatively youthful, generation.

But the fact is that other agencies have been quick to identify what they will say is a chink in Vizeum's armour. Whether this is true or not we'll see soon enough - and Vizeum has more than enough strength in depth to prove them otherwise - but the excitement of its rivals does provide further evidence of how difficult it is to see much differentiation between them all.

Talking to a chief planner at a media agency recently, I asked which agencies he thought had a distinct positioning and he could only name one - and it wasn't his own. Instead he named PHD, and you could argue that a large part of its heritage as one of the more "clever" and pioneering agencies is a legacy of its long-departed founders. This flame has been kept burning by its current management team, led by the chief executive, Daren Rubins, who, after 11 years at the company, is imbued in its culture and aware of the importance of its history.

In the past, virtually all agencies seemed to be defined by the personalities who either ran or founded them, much like PHD. So the no-nonsense grafter Christine Walker was the personification of the agency brand, tempered by the benign influence of the thoughtful gentle-natured Phil Georgiadis. Fortunately for Walker Media, and despite Georgiadis taking on the chairman role, his influence is still tangible.

But for everyone else, and with the departure of the pioneering entrepreneurial grey beards - with a few notable exceptions such as Georgiadis and Marc Mendoza - and their replacement by a new breed of competent but essentially corporate managers, there doesn't seem to be the differentiation there one was. Which is why any point is apparently worth seizing upon.