Xavier Rees: protecting ‘customer engagement’ as a specialism has never been more crucial

Blur the lines, don't break them, says Havas London chief Xavier Rees.

And so the new decade begins as the last one ended – with another of the industry’s most iconic customer engagement brands on the scrapheap. Last week, Lida joined the likes of OgilvyOne, Wunderman, Kitcatt Nohr and Partners Andrew Aldridge as the latest casualty of ‘integration’ driven not by strategic nous, but commercial necessity.

The move to merge a best-in-class customer engagement agency with an underperforming creative agency has become a depressing trend, at a time when the discipline has worked its way from the fringes of the industry to its very heart. Here lies the paradox. Customer engagement has never been more crucial, nor its influence greater – right as we lose some of its best-known practitioners. These agencies finally earned a seat at the top table, only to go and sit on someone else’s lap.

The press releases will cry greater integration and the need for disciplines to work closer together - and this is, of course, the case. But in reality, the dominant culture always wins out. It’s not that these new entities will become jacks of all trades, masters of none; more that one discipline will suffer at the expense of the other. And let’s be frank - more often than not, it’s going to be the customer engagement specialism that loses out to the more established ad brand.

There will also be talk of ‘future-proofing’ - a tacit admission that your agency has fallen behind and failed to modernise. The best ad agencies future-proofed themselves years ago, by hiring lots of people from non-advertising backgrounds with a range of skillsets and specialisms. Regardless, you don’t need to merge entities to ‘future-proof’ - you just need to find effective ways of making it easy for everyone to work with one another.

Shorter-term, these merged agencies will also face talent and conflict-shaped hurdles. How do you retain your senior talent? This has been Ogilvy’s biggest problem. In merging everything, it lost pretty much every leader in the agency as their job titles and autonomy were diminished. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on M&C, specifically whether they are able to keep Managing Director Tom Firth and Jonathan Goodman (CEO of LIDA until last week) happy. As it stands, they remain in the business, ‘helping the transition for clients and staff’ - including, presumably, the inevitable client conflict issues.

Blur the lines, don’t break them

Having spent half my career in customer engagement and half in advertising, and with a current remit that spans both, I firmly believe in the need to protect disciplines while simultaneously blurring the lines between them.

It’s why we haven’t merged Havas London and Havas helia, and have no plans to do so. It’s also why we actively encourage people moving between the two agencies, with both helia’s London Managing Director and ECD having started in Havas London, while a number of our ad agency creatives began life in its sister customer engagement agency. Some people, myself as CEO included plus disciplines such as HR, new business and PR, span both. We share a building – an inherent advantage, admittedly – and an increasing amount of joint accounts.

On the other hand, helia won the two biggest customer engagement pitches of 2019 – Lloyds Banking Group and Compare the Market – thus proving there remains an appetite for specialist, standalone agency brands.

After all, clients, like consumers, buy brands, and they want both generalists and specialists, not the former at expense of the latter. Agencies must excel in their discipline, while figuring out how to better collaborate with their partners. You don’t need to merge to do that.

It’s always sad to see a brand like Lida go, but it’s no reflection on the health of customer engagement as a discipline. Indeed, it’s an opportunity for those of us that still stand proudly in the market.

Xavier Rees, CEO of Havas London and Havas helia

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