'Big six' dinosaurs are at a crossroads in the fight for survival

New entrants and investors show there is huge opportunity, but only for those willing to change.

A vigorous advertising industry has always been defined by entrepreneurial energy and contrarian talent – this is resurgent again, as the next generation takes a grip.

For the past decade, advertising has been dominated by the "big six" holding companies: WPP, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe, Interpublic, Dentsu and Havas.

We were occasionally "entertained" by old male leadership spats, but fundamentally the agency landscape was flat.

Six groups pursuing roughly the same strategy, similar business models and often relying on acquisitive growth. 

Then Darwin came to the rescue, as a friend if you had the creativity to invent and evolve, but as a nightmare to those breathing their own exhaust and holding the belief that barriers to entry such as scale and global reach would protect them forever.

Now, we appear to be returning to a more natural state of creativity that has always defined the best advertising practitioners.

New entrants and investors

In every sector of advertising, privately funded and start-up businesses are flourishing, fuelled by a new diversity where even giant advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal are supporting a fundamentally different ecosystem to procure the creativity they need to thrive and the vast range of content that they need to deliver.   

Augmented-reality businesses, gig-economy content creators, data hotshops, reinvented digital creative agencies and performance marketing wizards abound.

They are fuelled by private investors, private equity and venture-capital funds with a longer-term view and with a real belief in advertising.

These new businesses are growing fast and rebuilding creativity in a landscape that had become not only flat but dull, commoditised and, some might say, a touch arrogant. 

Even in the more "traditional" area, privately owned groups such as MSQ Partners have recently raised multiple millions to accelerate their growth story. 

Others such as Oliver and You & Mr Jones continue to disrupt and grow.

Specialist private-equity businesses such as The Stagwell Group continue to invest, seeing a clear upside.            

The depressing popular narrative of advertising being doomed is simply unrecognisable to these entrepreneurs, creative leaders, private investors and private-equity/venture-capital fund managers. 

And now even the big six have become more exciting as, just in the past 24 months, they have started to pursue fundamentally divergent strategies that will not only define their health but determine their survival and ability to resist becoming acquisition targets themselves.

The biggest divergence is their approach to data. This could sound utterly tedious but will prove to be an existential bet. 

The divergence is between those believing they have to be data "controllers" and those believing they will drive more value to their clients and themselves by the smartest data "processors" (to use the GDPR language).

The difference cannot be overstated. 

Just as Publicis Groupe places its $4.4bn bet on data ownership by acquiring Epsilon, following in the footsteps of Dentsu and Merkle, WPP has placed its $4bn bet on being smart data users and selling a majority stake in Kantar.

It is unlikely that both approaches are right.

Big six at the crossroads

This point at the crossroads will define the big six.

Those having chosen the wrong route will be the dinosaurs that Darwin will address in the brutal jungle of the public markets. 

The public markets have never provided the best platform for company transformation.

Long-term decisions can have very dangerous short-term consequences. 

There is a new energy in advertising, but it is not simply driven by the entrepreneurialism that defines this industry.

It is driven by the fundamental truth that brand owners need two ingredients to thrive – creativity and the ability to scale great ideas.

Kraft Heinz showed just what happens when scale alone becomes the driving force. It paid the price in a $15bn value write-down.

Other major brand owners have taken note and are reacquainting themselves with the fundamentals of brand-building to create company value.

Successful brand owners are scaling machines. But creativity is harder and so often demands that the brand owner look outside for inspiration – and this is where the new energy is being applied.

There is a simple measure to determine whether an agency is providing growth for its clients rather than being a commoditised mechanism for cost control.

It is called organic growth. If you are growing a client business, you get more business. It really is that straightforward.

It is the acid test that every smart investor uses to determine the true growth potential of an agency. Not its ability to spend money on potentially value-destroying acquisitions. 

The new flourish of creativity and entrepreneurialism we are now seeing will return the industry of advertising back into the vibrant and exciting world that it has to be: the growth industry.

Dinosaurs will die, but there's a new breed of agency disruptor thriving, growing the brands on which we all depend.

Iain Jacob holds a number of roles including chair of UKOM and Cinema First. He is a former media agency leader

Picture: Getty Images

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