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Martin Sorrel

“No Fundamental Difference Between Agencies”; Only If You Think So Sir Martin!

Holmes Report Podcast: Former CEO of the WPP Group Inadvertently Reveals His Real Consideration of the Industry

Roger Darashah


I’ve just got round to listening to a Podcast of Sit Martin Sorrell’s discussion at this year’s PRovoke Global PR Summit (held in Washington at the end of last year).  And I have been well and truly provoked (or should that be “PRovoked”?).

It came right at the end of an hour’s worth of fascinating insight from the former head of the World’s largest marketing services company, WPP.  During the conversation topics ranged from the competitive advantage boutique firms enjoy over their global rivals (they are more agile and creative; better placed to “fill in the gaps” between announcements and campaigns), to the future of the holding company model (“Omnicom . . . . doesn’t have a strategic bone it it’s body,” apparently).

But what caught my attention was the very final comment, at the tail end of the Q&A section.  “There is no fundamental difference between firms . . . .” asserted Sir Martin’s, before proceeding to reel off a list of WPP advertising agencies (Y&R, Ogilvy, Grey, and JWT – “there is no difference”), media buyers (Mindshare, Media Com, Wavemaker – “not different at all”), and PR agencies (“essentially the same”).

Conflict management was the only logic and justification for so many brands, he said. Wow! I get the logic; and as Omnicom’s ‘kitchen sink’ consolidations in Europe and Asia confirm, this is classic holding company-speak. But it’s hardly motivational for employees, and certainly not to an audience of PR professionals practiced in the finer art of message and nuance!

It is also factually incorrect.  Not all PR agencies are the same.  I can vouch from experience within two of the World’s largest (not WPP), as well as regularly collaborating with Omnicom and WPP PR firms, that the nature, working environments and priorities of each are distinct. This is what agency leadership is supposed to be about, after all.  Competitive advantage in creative, relationship-based industries is not secured by the race to the bottom; ‘conflict’ is the lowest and least gratifying reason that an agency wins a piece of business.   Neither is it a sustainable business model. Even if there are sufficient prospects selecting agencies purely on the basis of their current client list (ie conflict avoidance) which I doubt, it’s hard to imagine really top quality staff wanting to work for a firm whose only proposition is that they don’t currently work in a particular sector.

As I wrote in last week’s post, agency management is about meeting multiple agendas simultaneously.  This means creating and valuing distinctions between firms; this may mean devising a particular methodology to addressing client problems, an approach to developing and incentivizing staff, a process for integrating campaigns etc.  Such distinctions underpin an agency’s proposition, not merely to clients, but to staff and other stakeholders.

Are they – should they be – the same for all firms?  No, especially on the second point.  The alternative would suggest an inexorable commoditization of our entire business; not a very appetizing prospect even for a holding company.

Perhaps Sir Martin’s view coincided with his departure from WPP.  If they had devoted more time and energy to differentiating their offerings and creating value and distinction from the same, perhaps they’d be registering more growth across their PR brands.

Just a thought. 

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