PAUL HOLMES: True neutrality between marketing disciplines would be a positive development for everyone

"The days when agencies could give away their big ideas for nothing are over," says WPP Group chief executive Martin Sorrell in a Financial Times column last week.

"The days when agencies could give away their big ideas for nothing are over," says WPP Group chief executive Martin Sorrell in a Financial Times column last week.

It's hard to disagree with that, or anything else Sorrell said in the Financial Times article, which also suggested it was time to break down barriers between marketing disciplines, and start offering a strategic, discipline-neutral approach to solving client problems. Sorrell's giant holding company is now parent company to Ogilvy & Mather, which a decade or more ago brought us "orchestration," and to Young & Rubicam, which promised clients it could deliver "the whole egg." Come to think of it, WPP also owns Burson-Marsteller, which once ran an aphoristic ad campaign: "When your only tool is a hammer, the answer to every problem is a nail." Sorrell sounded that same theme when he told readers: "Visit a direct marketing agency with any business problem and the solution...will involve direct marketing. Take the same problem to an ad agency and it would involve 30-second TV spots." He went on to identify a familiar PR pro problem: "In the absence of structures to encourage media neutrality, many clients' briefs to agencies just assume that any solution will be advertising-led, while budgets for different disciplines are set inflexibly and based on little more than habit." There's a connection between the difficulty of getting clients to pay for ideas rather than execution and the continued existence of discipline-based silos. For one thing, there's little incentive for ad people to offer anything but ad solutions, especially since those solutions bring the parent company more money, ad budgets being much larger than PR budgets. Clients would have to be pretty dumb to expect impartial advice and discipline-neutral strategy when self-interest dictates otherwise. Moreover, there are relatively few people who understand how all channels of communication really work. Most ad folks view PR as "free publicity," while most PR pros have a tenuous grasp of how reach, frequency, and emotional images work. At WPP, Publicis, and elsewhere, senior management is looking to cross-train strategists from every discipline, to form interdisciplinary teams, to break down the barriers between functions. This effort is noble and necessary. Clients need the best strategic thinking on both their brands and corporate reputations. But since the best advice won't only be discipline-neutral, but source-neutral too, one must wonder if they can ever trust giant communications conglomerates to deliver it? When WPP strategists come up with a solution and recommend an Omnicom firm to deliver it, then they'll reach a point where they deserve to have their neutrality respected and their ideas paid for.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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