The World: The 4As opens its doors to a big world of trouble

Nancy Hill, the association's president, has raised eyebrows by welcoming non-US agencies into the fold.

Little more than a year into her presidency of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Nancy Hill is causing a stir.

At the association's leadership conference in San Francisco at the end of April, she outlined two controversial moves. The first was to officially change the organisation's name to its nickname, the 4As.

What's ruffled more feathers, however, is her plan to open up membership to non-US agencies to provide a new international business network to those not affiliated to a global group or network.

The move, she says, will provide members with "a sense of community that will allow them to forge their own business alliances".

It is not, she stresses, empire-building or any attempt to become an uber-trade body.

"We have no plans to offer global guidelines or global training or guidance on how to be a global agency, unless we were to do it in participation with other organisations. But we don't plan to take the lead on that," she says.

Hill simply wants to make it possible for US agencies to access other member agencies, which they can partner for new business and client servicing around the world and vice versa.

She explains: "The minute everything went digital, it went global. I think there are a lot of agencies inside and outside the US that are doing business globally but don't necessarily have feet on the street to buy media locally or to understand the local market.

"For them to put feet on the street is not cost-effective, whereas if they could tap into an agency that's already in a country or in a region, it would be easier for them."

One issue that springs to mind is that there are groups such as Worldwide Partners, Magnet and the IN Network, which have long been set up to provide this kind of networking service. They are run by central administrations dedicated to putting suitable agencies together.

It is the success of these groups that is thought, by some sources, to be one of the drivers for Hill's initiative: fear that if forced to choose between paying the 4As' fee or paying for new business and client service, networking independents may opt for the latter.

But can the 4As vet each agency and help decide which ones should work together as thoroughly as the established groups?

Al Moffatt, the chief executive of Worldwide Partners, is not convinced. "This business is all about trust and relationships. And if you're going to farm out a piece of your business to another agency, you need total confidence that they are at least as good as you," he says.

This is not the only issue to consider. Hill wants to launch the initiative at the beginning of the summer. But given that she only announced it to the European Association of Communications Agencies members meeting at the end of last month, without having sounded out the other trade bodies first, there are still a few hurdles to overcome.

Hamish Pringle, the IPA director-general, says the issue of what to charge could present a barrier.

"We've discussed ideas like associate membership and overseas membership in the past and we keep stumbling on the issue of how to price them," he explains.

"Would it be fair for the UK IPA members if these non-UK members weren't paying the full rate? If you did charge them the same, would it be cost-effective for their employees to travel over for our events, attend our professional development courses, or join in member community groups?"

Obviously, associate members would pay less than full members for a limited service, which Hill suggests might include access to some, but not all, of its website content, plus invitations to conferences.

In the IPA's case, non-member agencies can already access many of its online resources for a fee but because it offers such a specialised service, it may be counter-productive to open its doors to non-UK agencies. It is currently discussing the idea with its members.

Another problem from a European perspective is how will a reciprocal agreement between all the associations be achieved?

Dominic Lyle, the director-general of the European Association of Communications Agencies, is sceptical.

"I think, from an American point of view, it could work because they can go to the 4As events.

"But when you get to Europe, I think it's unlikely that any European agencies are going to fly across to the States for seminars and conferences and it's just hugely complicated and I think all our members would say they don't see how it can work."

One US agency source suggests that it might not go down well with some of the 4As members such as Omnicom and Interpublic.

"What if the independents start stealing business from 4As members who are multinationals? The 4As will enable that? Sure. And then see the holding companies pull the plug on the memberships. Oops."

Hill is confident she has the support to drive it forward - not only in the US, but also in Asia-Pacific and South America, where she has been approached by individual agencies but has yet to formally speak to the equivalent trade bodies.

"Our members - large and small - have specifically asked the 4As to help identify partnership opportunities with global companies and international associate membership will facilitate those conversations." But, she admits, there is still some way to go.

"We've got to develop a pricing structure, we've got to consider our members as we put it together so that there is a distinction between our current members and our associate members. We're still working through the details. Stay tuned."


'You need total confidence that they are at least as good as you' - Al Moffatt, Worldwide Partners

'It's hugely complicated ... our members would say they don't see how it can work' - Dominic Lyle, EACA

'Would it be cost-effective for overseas employees to travel over for our events?' - Hamish Pringle, IPA.