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Ian Darby: Adland doesn't have to rip it up and start again

In the week when the East Coast of the US was battered by a storm called Sandy, it seems appropriate to consider the spectacle of things falling apart. The possibility that the centre cannot hold.

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The US election battle has highlighted other turbulent forces at play, but the storms that have lashed the ad world of late seem to extend far beyond that country. Recent weeks have seen the ad holding companies demonstrate some level of concern over their third-quarter revenue and income figures. Publicis’ words about a September slump "as sharp as it was unexpected" hardly bode well for recovery.

Yet, even in a climate of clients slashing budgets in Europe, the major ad groups have at least two things in their favour: scale and a plan. The majority have leveraged cash reserves to make acquisitions to shore themselves up against advancing forces of technological and economic change. Their plan is to aggregate this new resource, predominantly digital, alongside existing services to offer one-stop solutions for clients.

Omnicom’s John Wren tells analysts that "collaboration and co-ordination across agencies is even more important today". WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, in an exchange on BBC World News with Sunil Mittal, the founder of the telecoms group Bharti Airtel, also nods in this direction. And he seems to be only half-joking when he says: "We’re trying to get 100 per cent market share without you realising it."

Critics suggest that this drive towards building stronger relationships with large clients based around the integration of services will amount to very little if not turbocharged by a new way of thinking that rips up the old agency model. Nobody is sure what this model will look like, but the words "real time", "digital" and "data" tend to loom large. "Brave" and "radical" also crop up time and time again.

I’m not so sure. As events in New York show, traumatic situations can be overcome and something close to a norm reintroduced. Should this hold true, there remains a significant place for the core skills of advertising agencies should the economic situation improve.

This is illustrated by much of the current US election advertising. How radical is the most-talked-about marketing content around the contest? The hoo-hah around Lena Dunham’s "your first time" online film in support of Obama has been fun to observe – some find it "disgusting" , but it’s essentially an old-fashioned piece of communications written by somebody with some talent and distributed in the form of an online film.
Brave and confrontational in tone, perhaps, but hardly rewriting the rules of communications. And perhaps that’s the point. That the next few years aren’t about changing the rules, smashing everything up and starting again. But about combining core skills with cheaper, broader, faster delivery.


Claire Beale is away

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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