Stuart Elliott: Blurred Lines on Madison Avenue

by Stuart Elliott

For decades, when it came to tasks to be performed for clients, the lines of demarcation on Madison Avenue were clear. There were agencies for creative, agencies for media, agencies for public relations, agencies for direct marketing and so on. And for those marketers disinclined to wrangle multiple agencies, there also were multidisciplinary shops offering one-stop shopping.

More recently, as the search for breakthrough ideas expands across boundaries and technology remakes every aspect of our lives, the lines denoting who does what are becoming much less distinct. "Management consultants are moving deeper into Madison Avenue's territory," declared an article in the Wall Street Journal reporting on the acquisition of Heat, a full-service creative agency based in San Francisco, by the consulting firm Deloitte. It isn't Deloitte's first foray into adland; the firm started a creative agency division, Deloitte Digital, in 2012.

Deloitte joins a lengthy list of non-advertising companies expanding into various forms of advertising. Others include the PwC Digital unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers; the Accenture Interactive division of Accenture; and IBM Interactive Experience, the digital marketing services group of IBM, which is buying the Resource/Ammirati agency.

On the other side of the coin, the ad conglomerate Publicis Groupe acquired the Sapient Corporation, the marketing and consulting company with expertise in areas such as business, technology and strategic services. To blur the lines even further, Sapient previously had bought ad agencies including Campfire, La Comunidad and Nitro, forming a digital and creative division known as SapientNitro.

Media companies are erasing the distinctions between themselves and agencies by starting in-house creative shops, among them T Brand Studio at the New York Times and a brand-new branded-content studio, as yet unnamed, at New York magazine. (Did someone pass a law requiring print media to dub these units "studios"?)

And as if to return the favor, agencies that handle social media assignments for clients are setting up rapid-response desks and 24/7 operations they are calling newsrooms, making them more like media companies.

When the lines separating what one firm does from another begin to blur, there's no doubt opportunities are being created; it's kind of the business-development version of the classic Woody Allen joke that being bisexual doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night. But risks also abound when trying something to which you're unaccustomed. After all, drivers will tell you that the lines on a highway usually are there for a reason and sometimes you change lanes at your peril.

Still, it's becoming apparent that the top executives of advertising will have to re-examine where the lines are and where they ought to be. "We're in the beginning stages of a big evolution among sellers and buyers," said Michael A. Clinton, president for marketing and publishing director of Hearst Magazines; he took part in a panel on the 21st century agency that I moderated last month during the American Magazine Media Conference 2016.

"I think media and creative have to come back together, but in a new way," said another panelist, David Verklin, the former media agency leader who is now managing partner at VFL Investment and Advisory as well as a senior adviser to the Boston Consulting Group.

The decoupling of the creative and media departments that was introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, as the big ad holding groups gained sway over Madison Avenue, may have made sense back in the day. But the lines keeping them apart are less logical now, when the media choices for a campaign have to be made as creatively as the creative choices and, as Verklin pointed out, in many instances "the creative comes with the buy" -- that is, from the media company selling the commercial time or ad space in which a campaign appears.

Many smaller agencies have "reintegrated and reconnected" the media and creative disciplines, Verklin said, particularly start-ups and those with entrepreneurial roots.

I'd recommend that one of the major holding groups -- in addition to Publicis, they are WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic Group and Dentsu -- undertake a blurred lines experiment or two, reconfiguring agencies in ways that acknowledge the changing needs of clients and consumers. They could, for example, combine a major creative agency with a large media agency. Or they could put under one roof agencies specializing in traditional media, social media, event marketing and experiential marketing.

Maybe a holding group could blur the lines even more significantly, by acquiring a Hollywood talent agency ... or buying some of the parts of Yahoo that are going up for sale ... or cozying up to a tech titan for a joint venture or perhaps -- gasp! -- a merger.

So go ahead and blur the lines, Madison Avenue. It might help make your future clearer.

The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage/MyersBizNet management or associated bloggers. 

Stuart has spent more than three decades covering advertising, marketing and media. He is perhaps best known as the advertising columnist of The New York Times, a post he held from May 1991 to December 2014, writing the weekday advertising report in print as well as other news articles and features. More.

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