Are founders crucial to agency’s future?

When Archibald Ingall Stretton launched in the late Nineties, it was part of a second generation of start-ups set up by people who had become disgruntled with working in large organisations – and the restrictions that they impose.
Probably best described as the middle-aged guns, they are epitomised by the likes of AIS, Partners Andrews Aldridge, Kitcatt Nohr, Stephens Francis Whitson and Chemistry. Some had backing from the Messrs Sorrell, Wren and Levy and now nearly all are owned in some shape or form by one of the major marketing groups.
Rather ironically, considering they launched their agencies because they were fed up with the layers of management at their previous employers, nearly all the agency heads have now taken up senior roles within their parent organisations. That should not be too surprising as, when the likes of Havas, WPP and Interpublic get their cheque-books out, getting their mitts on the senior management is often one of the key goals.
But while most have integrated nicely into the UK fold, of this particular wave only AIS has attempted to expand the brand into overseas markets. It now has two agencies in Spain and recently set up shop in New York. With the departure of co-founder Stuart Archibald – following John Ingall’s exit late last year – leaving only Steve Stretton of the original threesome, it begs the question: how do agencies ensure continuity once their founders leave?
You could point to EHS 4D as one example. Of course, the original line up of David Evans, Terry Hunt and Ken Scott only lasted a few explosive years anyway, and it was not until relatively recently that Hunt finally hung up his Magic Marker set. His contribution should not be under-estimated either, with his attention to creative and strategic detail one of the major contributing factors to EHS 4D’s longevity.
So far its succession management strategy appears to be working, despite the looming departure of chief executive Matt Atkinson. The fact that he is joining the agency’s biggest client – Tesco – will soften the blow, and in Tash Whitmey and her team there is still continuity.
Havas will certainly be hoping that is the case with AIS. Of course, it is still early days, but the doom-mongers who claimed the business would fall apart once Ingall’s steady hand had been taken off the tiller have so far been proven wrong, as have those who predicted that O2 would follow out of the door once silver-tongued Archibald left for his global quest. Everyone recognises accounts do not stay at the same agency forever, and after nearly a decade with AIS, the senior team will have to recognise that they have had a good innings if O2 was ever to switch.
If anything, and no doubt much to the chagrin of some, AIS has actually been performing rather well without them – a prime example being last year’s rout at the DMA Awards.
Other agencies try to distance themselves from their roots and founders. Ask anyone at Rapp if they want to be associated with their Compton & Woodhouse heritage from the early days at WWAV and most will baulk at the very mention, even though it helped the agency grow exponentially.
Some argue that the founders are only a selling point when it is starting out. Once an agency’s ethos is in place, it should be in its DNA, no matter who takes over.
But in the same week that what would have been David Ogilvy’s 100th birthday is celebrated by painting Cannes red, you have wonder how many of the current crop of agency chiefs will be getting the same treatment in the years ahead.

Charlie McKelvey is publishing editor of DecisionMarketing

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1 Comment on "Are founders crucial to agency’s future?"

  1. Compton & Woodhouse? Come on, there was some great creative for that!

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