What’s behind Publicis, IPG and Omnicom’s recent on-pitch success?
Which of advertising’s big agency businesses are benefiting most from client demand? / Unsplash
In both business and football, form is a invaluable spur to success. Teams that have it, both on the pitch and in pitch meetings, look invincible against their opponents – and teams that go without tend to see their problems pile up at the door.
In the words of Ben Bilboul, outgoing chief executive officer of Karmarama, a win ”can create the best buzz in the agency. But if you lose too many on the trot it can really destroy morale and confidence.”
The reasons behind a run of success are, however, far less mysterious in the agency business than in the Premier League.
Which agencies are ahead?
In the first quarter of this year, the lion’s share of major new account wins were taken by Publicis, Omnicom and Interpublic Group (IPG), largely at the expense of WPP and Dentsu. The latter companies were on the wrong side of Meta’s 2021 agency review (Publicis’s Spark Foundry won the account), while Dentsu has recently lost out in a series of pitches where it was an incumbent or a favorite, such as United Airlines and Coca-Cola. Even recent wins for Dentsu, such as AB InBev and Lenovo, have come courtesy of an alliance with a competitor.
In contrast, Publicis picked up major accounts in the first quarter of 2022 including KFC’s media account and CVS Health, while IPG took the creative business for KFC and media for delivery app GrubHub.
According to JP Morgan market analysis seen by The Drum, Dentsu lost $1.4bn in billings last year, while only bringing in $480m of new business; WPP added $3.6bn in billings, but lost over $4.8bn. In contrast, Publicis increased its billings by $3.4bn, while IPG and Omnicom increased their net reported billings by $2bn and $1.2bn respectively.
JP Morgan estimates that between January and March, when over $870m of new business changed hands, Dentsu again saw a net loss, while IPG and Interpublic brought in hundreds of millions in new reported billings.
In the UK, for example, COMvergence new business data for the whole of 2021 saw Publicis Media, Omnicom Media Group and Mediabrands pull away from GroupM and Dentsu International. The consultancy estimated that Publicis media agency Zenith brought in $155m of new business, compared to losses of $220m and $156m at Wavemaker and Mediacom respectively. Combined data on global creative and media account wins from consultancy R3 for the same time period showed that WPP performed better than its rivals, but still placed Dentsu behind holding company competitors.
What’s behind the run of form?
Chief marketing officers at the major auto and consumer goods brands have been concerned by their lack of a direct route to consumers since the advent of the pandemic. According to Jay Wilson, vice-president and analyst at Gartner for Marketers, brands want agencies to help them solve that issue. ”Right now, it’s really about the pivot to a direct-to-consumer (D2C) business model, and the associated digital commerce capabilities that need to go along with that. Digital commerce initiatives are very highly prioritized by organizations right now,” he says.
In practice, that requires a data-intensive approach in both media and creative treatments, and customer experience expertise that goes beyond a simple user experience (UX) uplift.
”A lot of [clients] went into the pandemic without really any kind of robust digital commerce capabilities. We saw a heavy reliance on agencies for those types of capabilities,” he says. As such, the holding companies ”equipped to help clients ... start collecting and leveraging customer data, especially for CPG companies that never really had that business model” are likely to perform strongest, Wilson says.
The holding companies with more developed capabilities in those areas are likely to benefit. Indeed, Omnicom, Publicis and IPG already had major data and digital transformation assets in place before 2020, in the form of Omni, Epsilon and Acxiom. In contrast, WPP only launched its global data offering, Choreograph, in April 2021 – relatively late to the party.
Brands are also looking to align their new digital expertise and capabilities with their underlying business model, something that requires a deeper engagement from agencies.
”A big thing we’ve heard about in the past six to 12 months is brand strategy and brand consulting. That might also be a part of this equation,” he suggests. ”If a business has determined that it needs to make a fundamental shift in the way that it goes to market, then there are certainly brand implications around that. We’ve had a significant increase in the number of clients that are coming to us for guidance around selecting brand consultancies, you know, companies like Lippincott and Sylvain.”
Demand for consulting, Wilson says, has benefited holding companies with established brand strategy chops – such as Omnicom, which owns Siegel + Gale. Havas acquired Gate One in 2019 with that appetite in mind – a buy which has since provided significant returns.
In that environment, he suggests incumbents have found themselves at a disadvantage. ”CMOs are looking to switch up based on a perceived lack of innovation coming from their existing agencies,” he says. ”When we asked them about the reasons for switching up their agency roster, that lack of innovation comes to the top – ranked higher than budget or cost.”
The last 18 months have also seen clients rush to consolidate media and creative accounts. ”We hear that marketers who have been reliant on midsize and independent and boutique agencies, because they’re going through this period of consolidation, are starting to look at the holding company level more than they have in the past.”
While that might bring some clients away from competitive indies such as Wieden + Kennedy and toward holding companies, the spoils won’t be distributed equally. Wilson points out that marketing budgets have not yet fully recovered in the wake of the pandemic. In any case, it means there’s less pie to go around for agencies.
”At a global level for FMCG clients, what we’ve seen is that agency spend has remained relatively stable, at around 24-25% of overall marketing budgets over the past six years we’ve been tracking,” he says. ”But the reality is, the overall budget has been cut fairly significantly since the start of the pandemic. So while agencies are holding on to the same proportion, those dollar numbers have gone down as a whole.”
There’s also the impact of internal restructuring to contend with – the necessary but disruptive work of chopping, changing and re-nosing business models across the board. WPP’s big agency mergers throughout the last year have yielded some success stories in VMLY&R and AKQA Group, noted among its best-performing units in its recent full-year results.
Dentsu’s grand restructure, however, is far from complete. Chief exec Wendy Clark estimated it was ”a third of the way through that journey” in November; a spokesperson for the holding company told The Drum they expected the process to be finished by the start of 2023.
In both cases, reshuffles test the patience of clients (consider P&G’s intervention to save the Grey brand) and make recruitment harder; a major concern given the current competition for agency talent.
There’s enough business up for grabs this year to change the state of play. Burger King’s review could be a major test for WPP’s David, given the level of scrutiny its creative output for the fast food monarchy has received. A win could prove validating for the Miami shop. And long-term investments, such as WPP’s campus projects in Milan and Amsterdam, could yet help synchronize its agencies and attract more talent, while Coley Porter Bell could be positioned well to soak up the demand for strategic brand consulting.
Meanwhile, Dentsu returned to the M&A scene last year by snapping up LiveArea and signalled further intentions in February when it unveiled an acquisition fund of over $2.5bn. Smart buys could help it tool up in time for the eventual completion of its restructure. As any football fan would attest, plenty of goals are scored against the run of play.