Whatever happened to the holding company pitch? Two or three years ago it seemed every contest for a multimillion-pound global account was a battle between the communication supergroups, rather than their agency network subsidiaries.
It was a trend which had broad, if superficial, appeal. The big four players liked being able to keep costs down by having their operating companies pool resources. Clients, many of whom with heavily trimmed marketing departments, found the idea of having so much creative firepower concentrated on their business very attractive.
Today, the evidence suggests that far fewer of these mega-contests are taking place. "I've always believed that the holding company pitch was a phenomenon that could not last," Maurice Levy, the Publicis Groupe chairman, says. "Holding companies exist to manage conflict among their operating companies. Global pitches almost put them in conflict with their own structure."
So what is the answer? As John Farrell, the worldwide president of Publicis Groupe's specialised agencies and marketing services, points out: "It's not that the demand by global clients for seamless communications and the best possible service is any less."
For the moment, the global pitch has been usurped by the an alternative concept, which allows clients to pick their "dream teams". Recent times have seen the birth of Team Samsung, Team HSBC and Team Vodafone. Soon, if reports are to be believed, Team Sky and Team Alfa (for Alfa Romeo) will emerge.
Last month, WPP gave a more permanent appearance to Team Detroit, a joint venture of six agencies handling Ford business from the US motor capital, by naming George Rogers, the JWT president in Detroit, as the chief executive.
According to senior global agency managers, the "Team" idea has evolved out of clients' reluctance to move away from the "comfort zone" of their lead agency, and to have that agency co-ordinate its all-round communication needs.
"It's less about clients pushing the agenda, more about making the integrated approach work," Farrell adds.
What seems to have scuppered the global holding company pitch is client scepticism that an aggregation of agencies, sometimes cobbled together in haste to meet a complex brief, can be truly bonded.
"It's to a holding company's benefit to promote such arrangements, but they don't necessarily do it for the best reasons," a leading pitch consultant says. "Clients looking at going the holding company route have concerns that what they are being offered isn't tried and tested and that the pitching teams have no history of working together."
Interpublic, which has the task to promote Nokia's new generation of handsets, has a bespoke arrangement under which the business is shared between Lowe London, Draft, Jack Morton, an experimental marketing company, and R/GA, an interactive specialist.
Steve Gatfield, IPG's executive vice-president of network operations and Lowe Worldwide's chief executive, says: "We much prefer the 'Team' solution to plucking people out of operating companies. A holding group isn't an agency."
WPP also is a firm advocate of the "Team" idea, having set up Team Vodafone and Team HSBC. The latter was assembled in 2004 to handle the bank's £350 million global business. However, Peter Stringham, HSBC's head of global marketing, warns that the system is not a panacea: "Does it work? Yes. Does it work perfectly? No."
Stringham confesses to having been sceptical when WPP put the idea of a JWT-led team to him, but he now admits: "I'm glad we did it. A big global brand like ours with a consistent message requires service on so many levels, that it helps having one holding company team.
"The problem is that there is always some part of the team that's not functioning properly some of the time, usually because of personal changes, either within the team or at our end."
Whether or not the "Team" becomes a permanent fixture on the global communications scene is an open question. Some believe the growth of technology which obviates the need for lots of face-to-face meetings will speed the process.
Others are not so sure. "Clients expect a service tailor-made to their requirements," a senior manager at a global group says. "Putting together a 'Team' is all very well, but it has to mean something."
Certainly, "Teams" are not a universal problem-solver. They will not flourish if budgets are too small, and may not be practical for every large multinational advertiser. For example, it may be more sensible for some global packaged goods companies to split brands between networks.
Moreover, clients need to enter a "Team" arrangement in the right frame of mind. Long-standing ties with agencies around the world may need to be painfully severed; hardline stances about conflict may need to be abandoned. "We try to be flexible," Stringham says. "In countries where our presence is small, we will allow agencies to take what business they wish."
The widespread view is that "Teams" work best when the chemistry is right between members, and they are fired up by working across the communication disciplines. Also, it is vital the team leaders are not tied to one particular agency.
Proponents also claim "Teams" encourage a collaborative spirit, which makes people want to work together on other projects.
Where the "Team" system falters is when it gets suffocated by client politics, or if the fees are unfairly shared. As one senior manager with extensive "Team" experience explains: "It's hard to ask a favour from another agency if they don't think it worth the trouble. Teams work - but you mustn't be greedy."