SUPPLEMENT: TOP EUROPEAN AGENCIES; Is the European agency network redundant?

Off-the-shelf affiliations and hi-tech ventures are threatening the traditional networks’ hold on European accounts. Richard Cook investigates

Off-the-shelf affiliations and hi-tech ventures are threatening the

traditional networks’ hold on European accounts. Richard Cook


Spot the odd one out: Ammirati Puris Lintas, Lowes, Leo Burnett, DMB&B,

Foote Cone Belding and, wait for it, SMI Group. Not too tricky, perhaps,

but it doesn’t matter that SMI could fit snugly into the lobby of any of

the other international agency groups that were on the pitch-list for

Olivetti’s pounds 20 million pan-European account - it was a pitch that

SMI, in partnership with the international creative consultancy, World

Writers, won.

‘Olivetti gave everyone four days to come up with an ad as part of the

pitch process,’ Simon Anholt, World Writers’ managing director,

remembers. ‘And all the networks duly managed to cut through their

bureaucracy and just about get this done. We came up with 28 different

and finished ads in seven languages. And that’s the point of a set-up

like ours for Olivetti - if you have a central client doing a branding

campaign from a single point of view, you want to be able to brief

someone and liaise with that same person as the work is prepared. You

don’t want a decentralised agency with people scattered all over the

place and faxes trailing round after them.’

Nor is it merely in the realm of the hi-tech that the traditional agency

network set-up is now being questioned. There have been numerous other

examples - Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson forming an alliance with Ogilvy

and Mather to pitch for, and win, the pounds 20 million Sony PlayStation

launch campaign across Europe; M&C Saatchi following that with its tie

up with Optimedia for British Airways; while Bartle Bogle Hegarty has

been happily running pan-European campaigns for clients such as Club

Med, Haagen-Dazs and Levi’s out of London for years without a

traditional agency network.

But then there are no less spectacular examples of clients taking the

opposite direction - not least IBM’s decision in 1994 to rationalise its

entire pounds 170 million worldwide account, previously handled by more

than 40 agencies, into O&M. IBM wanted to present one central global

branding message and went for a single network because it felt one

supplier could best achieve that clarity of message across different

markets. Sony had much the same intention and followed an entirely

different route through, coincidentally, the same agency.

‘Obviously we’ve worked on both sides of the fence, both as a single

international network on work like IBM, and together with Simons Palmer

on Sony PlayStation,’ Alan Rutherford, director of O&M’s devolved media

operation, the Network, says. ‘It very much depends on what the client


Although Rutherford doesn’t believe this kind of ad hoc arrangement

provides a real threat to the multinational agency network at the

moment, he does see more flexible arrangements growing in popularity.

‘You have to remember that Sony picked Simons Palmer because it had the

best creative strategies, not because of its international network.’

It’s difficult to make generalisations about differing set-ups

benefiting different clients. The fact is that some clients are happy

with the unbundling of some or all of their advertising services and

some are not. ‘The only rule I would venture for clients,’ Rutherford

adds, ‘is that if they need a number of creative treatments in

individual markets, it would be difficult to do it any other way than

via the conventional network. They simply have to have some function to

manage all the different creative shops, and that’s where the single

agency network fits in.’

It’s an assertion that meets with broad approval, even from the likes of

Simons Palmer and SMI. But what about those clients happy to tailor one

basic message to different markets? For them there is now a considerable

choice of bespoke services that are fast gaining in popularity.

Paul Simons, chairman of Simons Palmer, is an advocate of alternatives

to the traditional European network. ‘Clients are recognising that they

need the right combination of people to accomplish their marketing goals

and that an off-the-shelf solution is not always the answer,’ he argues.

‘They are quite happy to source the creative product in one area and use

local offices to make sure it is correctly applied. I think the trend

towards separating media from creative has helped pave the way for this

and now increasingly clients are prepared to separate the creative

sourcing from the distribution sourcing.’

If the trend towards unbundling and outsourcing has allowed these kinds

of looser affiliations to prosper, so too has the rapid progress made in

communications and new technology. There is no longer any reason why

communications between different companies across Europe can not at

least match internal agency procedures for speed and efficiency.

‘Conventional agency networks are slow and it can be a nightmare to get

real co-operation because whatever they may say, each local agency wants

more money for their own office. They don’t want just to be giving

uncredited help to the London office’s campaign,’ Alex Letts, chairman

of SMI, argues. ‘The big agency network is not going to go away, but

what I think we are seeing in what we’ve done and in some of the other

examples are the models for a new type of network.’

SMI uses the Internet to great effect in running its Olivetti business.

In addition to the standard information pages in which it parades its

own wares, the agency has created its own Website for real ads-in-

progress. They can be accessed at all stages both by people working on

the account and by the client through carefully protected gateways. The

ads are created by SMI and World Writers specifically for each

individual market. The client, in any country, can print off copies of

the ads, suggest changes or simply communicate with the creatives via

the Net. In addition, an account handler assigned to each country keeps

the client up to speed on progress in the usual way through meetings or

on the telephone.

But there are stumbling blocks on the road to the new network. ‘I’m

quite sure the structure of this kind of set-up can deliver better

creative results across a pan-European campaign,’ Anholt says. ‘But what

isn’t yet in place, and what clients still want, is all the account

handling. And that’s what the international agency network can deliver.’

Moreover, traditional networks are learning from the success of new

ventures and appropriating some of the smartest tricks into their own

structures. For example, Publicis has developed its own internal

communications package for Hewlett-Packard, based around the Internet,

that allows access to creative work-in-progress around the network and

at the client company.

But it may well be that it is the networks that aren’t willing to take

advantage of technological improvements who find themselves losing out

to smaller, creatively focused agencies they used to be able simply to

muscle off pitch-lists.