Agencies learn to work together for principal clients

PR firms expect to see more client demand for inter-agency, multi-disciplinary teams such as WPP Group's Team Detroit, which works with Ford, say top executives at agency holding companies.

PR firms expect to see more client demand for inter-agency, multidisciplinary teams, say top executives at agency holding companies.

A prominent example of this approach is WPP Group's Team Detroit, created in 2007 with a separate P&L to serve all of Ford's marketing needs. The group has pulled its talent, which numbers about 1,300 employees, from several agencies, including PR firms Ogilvy Public Relations, Burson-Marsteller, and Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

Just this year, WPP created similar set-ups for Colgate-Palmolive, MillerCoors, and InterContinental Hotels Group. In 2011, it spun off Team Lincoln from Team Detroit to work with the Ford luxury brand.

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell explains that while “a lot of people think this is done for cost-efficiency reasons only,” it is actually a strategic decision driven by clients. He adds that some companies “are looking at [the Ford] model and wanting a little bit of that.”

“Clients don't care which [agency] brand someone comes from, they just want the best people working on their business,” says Sorrell.  “We are increasingly using this model to help clients implement a strong brand vision.”

WPP isn't the only holding company using the strategy. Olivier Fleurot, CEO of Publicis Groupe-owned PR network MSLGroup, says “there is a tendency now on the client side to ask [our agencies] to work together, starting a few years ago with Procter & Gamble.”

Although that collaboration does not have a formal name, Publicis agencies on the P&G business include Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis Worldwide, Leo Burnett, and MSLGroup.

“We have since applied that approach in many different circumstances,” Fleurot adds. “I think we're seeing it happening more because of the greater overlap between the different disciplines, especially in terms of digital and social media.”

But the “team” model – as evidenced by the collapse almost three years ago of Enfatico, the ill-fated agency created by WPP to service Dell, has significant challenges.

Chris Preuss, global MD for Team Detroit and EVP at H+K, joined the Dearborn, MI-based entity last July. Previously, he was VP of global communications and president of GM's OnStar system at General Motors.

“The challenge, when you have a diversity of agencies that have all been geared to run their own business and are now trying to work under one financial and purchasing arrangement, is that they are still competitive,” he says. “Burson people have their own internal culture and motivations, just as people from Hill+Knowlton do.”

“It can provide times of tension – who is getting the lion's share of billings? Why did that agency win and another didn't? And who is handing out the assignments?” he adds.

However, Preuss explains that Team Detroit is largely able to circumvent those issues, in part because he came from the client side and has no legacy affiliation with a particular WPP firm. He was appointed by Ford communications VP Ray Day.

“I can understand the client's situation because I was a client for many years, but I can also dispassionately look at the network and decide who really is the best [for what we're looking for],” says Preuss. “I don't try and play the operations so someone gets more billings than the other.” 

Yet while clients are driving the inter-agency model across the major holding companies, Publicis and Omnicom prefer to pull together client teams without creating new agency structures, a la WPP.

Dale Adams, president and CEO of Omnicom's Diversified Agency Services unit, which includes agencies Ketchum, Fleishman-Hillard and Cone, believes keeping talent within their native environments helps them keep fresh and current.

“We don't want to create a new environment where [these teams] are insulated from the rest of the organization,” he says. “We continue to feel that we should have talent in the environment that has helped them to develop into the types of people they are.”

Adams sees the inter-agency client service model as best for companies “that engage a large number of agencies” and want to streamline the process. He also points out it that the model can involve more than one holding company. Earlier, this year, for instance, Omnicom partnered with rival Interpublic Group to create a joint venture to handle General Motors' Chevrolet brand.

Still, even though Adams predicts a short-term spike in the number of clients adopting an inter-agency, inter-disciplinary structure, he says that's only because clients who never thought about it before are now taking a hard look.

“But even if we see a spike, I don't see it as a new paradigm,” Adams adds. “It is the right thing for some clients, but not the right thing for all clients.”

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