As the big beast leaves the stage - is it time for a new holding company model?

I was almost done with this article when news broke on Saturday evening that Sir Martin Sorrell (aka SMS, aka June 21st - work it out, etc) had resigned.

The departure of Sorrell is a timely moment to consider a move away from generic, safe PR, writes Adam Mack
The departure of Sorrell is a timely moment to consider a move away from generic, safe PR, writes Adam Mack

I was already going to write about how WPP’s workplace drinking policy was just the latest in a series of industry developments to strip the joy, identity and variety from the PR agency sector but Sir Martin’s immaculately timed announcement – three hours past Gin O’Clock – gave me an even more perfect hook.

Because who better to trigger a discussion about our industry identity than the exit of the man who has done most to integrate, absorb and genericise it?

Alongside the likes of Accenture (who recently dropped the Kaper brand from its Karmarama business), his organisation has led the charge with ‘integrated’ pitches for the last decade, crashed together Burson and Cohn & Wolfe and, now, outlawed booze in the office.

Now, it’s important to note that this article isn’t me making a stand for workplace drinking.

I admit, in my formative years, I was very taken with the agency ‘tea trolley’ which used to do the office rounds every Friday, its teapots filled with champagne.

Nowadays, an occasional 4pm office beer can be a nice way to close off the day.

But this isn’t about that – I’m not so 'old school' to think that the world hasn’t moved on and that new behaviours and practices aren‘t needed.

So, as SMS gets dragged off to the glue factory (his words, not mine), perhaps we could be permitted to envisage a different industry future, at odds with integration, management speak and grey-suited armies.

Adam Mack, chief executive of W Communications

My objection isn’t because I believe alcohol should be part of our working day – it’s because I believe that this kind of thing patronises our people and eats away at our industry’s identity.

Any client survey I have ever read (and I have read a few) puts ‘creativity’ and ‘brings an alternative perspective’ at the top of its agency wish-list.

They want us for our difference and our contrariness. The variety we bring. The cross-pollination of ideas, audiences and models from other clients and sectors. Our deep specialisms. Our maverick spirit.

What they don’t want is for us to comply. To trot out category conventions. To follow the rules too much (they have plenty of them). To come over all generic. To look like them. To merge into a grey amorphous mass of corporate smuggery.

And the danger is that all this merger and acquisition, management consultancy, corporate policing and nanny state regulation will stifle this spirit.

So, as SMS gets dragged off to the glue factory (his words, not mine), perhaps we could be permitted to envisage a different industry future, at odds with integration, management speak and grey-suited armies.

A future where small and medium come together in collaborative holding companies bound together by the entrepreneurial spirit that spawned them and a common drive to deliver exceptional work for clients (all the while maintaining their identities).

Where agile operators cut through red tape and endless sign-offs to deliver rapid impact.

Where diverse agency cultures – the Blue Suits in corporate, the Hipsters in tech and the Chic and Sleek in consumer – are allowed to co-exist vibrantly whilst collaborating closely.

And where we trust our people to behave (and drink) responsibly in the office.

Douglas Bader once said that the rules are there for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men - us PRs have never really been all that obedient.

Let’s not start now.

Adam Mack is chief executive of W Communications

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