Martin Sorrell

Frenemies: A Review.


It’s not often that I’ve used this space to review or comment on business books.  But the blend of industry perspective and salacious beach reading found in Ken Auletta’s Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) is irresistible.

Auletta, longtime communication columnist for The New Yorker and author of Three Blind Mice and The Highwaymen, attempts to frame the collapse of the modern advertising business over the past two decades of technological displacement, radical shifts in media consumption and the shape-shifting and land-grabbing by technology platforms, consulting firms and media owners – the aforementioned Frenemies.

I say he attempts it because Frenemies is ambitious but flawed.  It’s also absolutely indispensable.

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What makes the book so readable is also what limits its perspective.  Auletta anchors his narrative on a handful of big personalities – then-WPP head Martin Sorrell; GroupM architect Irwin Gotlieb; R/GA founder Bob Greenberg; Facebook sales chief Carolyn Everson; and most heavily — and controversially – on MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan. (Full disclosure: My company Upstream Group has featured MediaLink executives at our events, and I have spoken at a MediaLink internal meeting.)  Reviewers have called Frenemies “DOA:  Dated on Arrival” because Sorrell was pushed out at WPP prior to publication.  But to me a bigger issue is that Auletta relies on the Great Men school of history; in a search for the modern-day heirs to Burnett, Bernbach and Lois, he tells his story through mostly older white men (Full disclosure: I am one.)  Everson, in her mid-40s with two decades of business experience as the book was written, is too often described as mentee and protégé.  While the featured subjects are noteworthy, none seem to really fill the shoes.  Or perhaps that’s just the point: advertising companies no longer have people’s names on the door.

What the book does extremely well – and what makes it required reading for younger executives in our industry – is to conjure up the disarray and displacement of today’s advertising establishment.  You get a clear picture of the absolute free-fall that holding companies and agencies are experiencing.  It’s a story of recrimination, confusion and customer abandonment that many in the industry have failed to see fully even as they’ve lived through it.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot, they’ve not fully felt the heat as it’s gradually increased.

This displacement and disarray prepares the ground for Kassan, who with no small amount of help from President and COO Wenda Harris Millard, has made MediaLink the glue in the fractured, fragmented world of media, marketing and communication.  Kassan gets far more ink in Frenemies than any of the other protagonists, and in its pages – as in the industry – we find MediaLink at the center of every meeting and the heart of every deal.  If Frenemies comes across as Kassan’s biography, it’s not an uncritical one:  Auletta presents him as a mashup of Chicago’s Billy Flynn and Tom Hagen from The Godfather.  But perhaps the prominence of a character like Kassan  – a fixer in a broken world – speaks volumes about the state of advertising today.

Perhaps that’s the point.

 


Agency, Heal Thyself.


This week a good friend sent a provocative Ad Age article around to several people in the industry; the topic was marketers’ new-found tendency to throw their agencies under the bus.  (“In Pressure Cooker, Marketers Lay Blame on Advertising.”)

As I read through the many complaints about this or that client publicly dissing the work of their agencies, a thought occurred to me:

This wouldn’t be happening if Hal Riney were alive.  Or Martin Sorrell, for that matter.

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The simple truth is that in the relentless pursuit of margin growth and short term victories to drive cash flow, agencies long ago stopped defining themselves.  No, the good old days were never really as good as we remember them, but you can’t dispute that in past decades ad agencies had personalities.  Some were defined by the “strong man” who led them:  Riney, Jerry Della Femina, Jay Chiat, Bill Bernbach. (In at least one case – Mary Wells Lawrence – a “strong woman.”)  McCann Erickson was “Truth Well Told” and Doyle Dane Bernbach regularly put out strong, stark creative messages that were – for the time – rather shocking.

Today I think it would be difficult for many agency employees to accurately and simply describe the DNA of the place they work.  What are the true hallmarks of an OMD, a UMI, an MEC?  Perhaps Digitas and Razorfish and Starcom all have well-defined characters – but how many of us understand them? Indeed, it’s now the rare shop that rises above the sea of anonymity and sameness.  Like, for instance, Crispin Porter Bogusky.  Say what you will about the creative excesses of the place (the creepy Burger King dude, e.g.), but CPB has a sense of swagger….and they don’t ever seem to be hurting for work.

If agencies allow themselves to be seen as temporary commerce hubs – routers for ad messages and billings – then they are complicit in their own commoditization.  I started my career at an agency (albeit early in the first Reagan term) and have spent many years prowling their halls.  And I can’t help but think that a shop with a strong sense of itself would not be so easily pushed around.

I welcome and encourage all the comments I’m going to get about how I’m wrong about this or that agency, or how my views are hopelessly naïve and dated.   But all I ask is that my agency friends circulate this post internally and allow it to provoke an important discussion:  Are you, in fact, only as good as the accounts you have on contract right now?  Or is there something more you to which you can aspire?