Not so long ago, international marketers were faced by a stark choice: either give their business to a multinational agency or assemble a collection of small, local agencies.
Each option had its strengths and its weaknesses. The large multinationals were reckoned to be strong on global reach and local service but inconsistent on creative, while the best of the local agencies were felt to be strong on (local) creative ideas but nowhere on global command and control.
Both models, however, were built on collections of local agencies whose main focus was their own national market. Neither model had perfected the art of developing truly international ideas for clients looking for a single big idea, capable of working across cultures and borders.
For international campaigns, the multinationals depended on one or two of their offices to tackle international briefs - typically in New York or London. And the local hotshops depended on their locally developed ideas being exportable - a rather hit-and-miss approach.
The smaller start-ups focused on coming up with the best ideas for their local markets. Their growth depended on being more creative in their local markets than the local offices of the major multinationals.
The multinationals were born in the era of imperialism, when clients were building their global businesses by conquering new national markets.
Agencies grew by following their clients into new markets and built their own multinational empires in the process - with the focus on becoming the strongest local player in each market. And some strong agency networks were built.
But once those networks had every geographical market covered, they started buying one another and the age of consolidation was born, forming giant holding companies.
And all the middle-sized agencies were stuck in the middle, without the global reach of the networks or the creative reputation of the smaller shops. Most ended up being absorbed into one of the megacorps.
And yet the winds of change that have been blowing through our industry over the past five years suggest that medium is the future.
Why? Digitisation. The development of the internet has blown away many cultural barriers. Ideas now travel at the speed of light around the world.
A new, global culture has emerged among an increasingly broad demographic.
Of course, differences remain - but fewer and fewer global marketers need their agency to maintain an office in every country.
Digitisation. Brands need to build a single, coherent global image in the digital age when consumers have a window on the world on their desktops and can see how brands behave in different markets. And a small, tight multicultural team of agency people working together in a single location can manage this better than a team scattered in different countries.
Digitisation. We now have a situation where all creative materials produced by an agency can be shipped around the world in a second. So the sprawling networks have lost the advantage they created by having people on the ground everywhere.
Digitisation. The digital revolution has transformed the media landscape in ways unimaginable a decade ago. Who would have thought our ads would be viewed on mobile phones or consumers would interact digitally with outdoor posters? The fragmentation of media puts an even greater premium on agencies that can come up with the "Big Brand Thought".
Digitisation. Client organisations have been transformed by the digital revolution, too. There has been a shift from country managers to category managers and international taskforces as the primary marketing decision-makers. These demand smart, internationally minded, mid-sized agency teams to help develop the big idea.
There is no doubt the digitisation of our world has wider implications for our industry than any previous technological advance. Just as the advent of commercial TV called for agencies to embrace new skills and ways of working, so the dawning of the digital age calls for a reappraisal of the role and structure of those things that used to be called advertising agencies.
The old order of top-down, sprawling hierarchical mega-agencies is being challenged by more horizontal, collaborative international agency models.
An increasing number of international clients are putting the ability to develop big international brand communication ideas at the top of their shopping list, ahead of service and reach.
And the (medium-sized) new model international agencies are showing that large multinational agencies do not have a monopoly on big, international ideas. Nike, Adidas, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Heineken are just some of the global clients who are committing to the new approach.
In Amsterdam alone, at least six new agencies have emerged in the past decade whose main focus is producing international ideas for major clients.
The old way of seeing the world - big multinational agencies or small local hotshops - is redundant. A new international middle class is rising and it has all the tools at its disposal to allow it to compete with the big boys, plus the additional benefits of:
1. Not forcing clients to pay for agency overheads, bricks and mortar in countries they don't need them.
2. The concentration of world-class creative talent in one or two locations, who specialise in the development of big ideas that can be executed in any language, any country, any medium.
3. The ability to adapt quickly to the industry-disrupting changes that are sweeping the planet.
4. Optimum size. Small enough to retain a strong creative culture and for staff to be on first-name terms. Big enough to attract world-class talent.
Some of the big networks are actually downsizing to compete - identifying "centres of creative excellence" or "lighthouse" agencies within their own networks. Maybe in the future, the annual Agency Network of the Year accolades will be replaced by a more appropriate International Agency of the Year - awarded to the agency that has demonstrably built its clients' businesses on an international basis through the creation of work that has got the world talking about its clients' brands, irrespective of the number of offices in its empire.
There would be a number of medium-sized contenders for the award.
The message is: The Medium.
- Alex Melvin is the chairman of 180 Amsterdam.
AT A GLANCE
Name: 180 Amsterdam
Founded: 1 October 1998
Principals: Alex Melvin, chairman; Guy Hayward, chief executive; Chris Mendola, managing director; Peter Cline, managing director; Richard Bullock, executive creative director; Andy Fackrell, executive creative director
Staff: 100 (25 nationalities)
Location: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Mission statement: Ideas that get the world talking
Describe your agency in three words: Creativity without frontiers.