When I was a mere Coglet, working for an international agency was an ambition. Network ad agencies had the largest, most important clients with whom they had built relationships going back many years. There was the opportunity to learn from the best in the business, whilst experiencing how advertising worked elsewhere.
Advertising agencies naturally started as local businesses. Networks developed not because managements were particularly far-sighted but as a result of client pressures -- clients wanted their U.S. agency to open up "branch offices" to serve their needs. (Most networks were U.S. owned, that Mad Men storyline notwithstanding.) Why? Because they trusted them.
Media agencies followed a similar trajectory -- from local to global. As they grew so large international clients wanted an organization able to contribute to (and aggregate) local plans and buys for head office, over whom they had leverage should there be a problem far away. Trust was a key component in this expansion of responsibilities.
Until the digital era media was very largely local. Certainly there were centrally produced tools. (My old agency Carat had more than its fair share of tools.) Plus, there were processes and consistent ways of working; there were central strategies built out of a distillation of best practice and a knowledge of what worked.
But with online advertising the game changed as the major players are by definition global. An unfortunate by-product has been the development of certain behaviors that have eroded trust.
Without trust any network is diminished. Unwelcome questions which may have been bubbling under have come to the surface. Is an agency that is ultimately at the financial beck and call of a parent conflicted when it comes to serving its clients? What does the agency do to deliver any degree of global consistency beyond the sharing of a name?
Networks have scale and access to investment. They are able to acquire the latest and hottest expertise. (WPP's acquiring of Essence is a case in point.) They can spend on research, tools, processes, even AI systems. They can hire high-profile central figures and give them the space to think and share. This central expertise and all those well-crafted visions are good for PR and no doubt help to open some important doors, but do they do anything to improve local plans and buys, to deliver consistent excellence locally?
If the network doesn't translate central expertise into on-the-ground delivery they offer little advantage over and above a strong local independent. The best independents can point to their positions as trusted, objective, planning-led organizations whose whole reason for existence is to do excellent work for their sole paymasters, their clients. Yes, they're local but maybe that's less of an issue.
A new model is emerging within which independents come together when required to pitch or service international business. Local members have access to a central back office providing support, and to serious experience within the central management team. In other words, an international service with an independent spirit.
It only takes one large client to go a la carte like this to demonstrate that a real alternative to the networks exists. I suspect one will be along soon.
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