Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Y &R was DOA. It's not the fault of Ann Fudge.

Young & Rubicam announced this week, to no one's surprise, that Ann Fudge is being replaced as the Chairman-CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands. It seems she will remain as Chairman-CEO of something within Y&R, but we all know that she's really just going to get paid to do very little until her contract expires.

(Full disclosure: I had two stints working at Young & Rubicam in the 1990s. When I left in 1999, I was an ACD on the Star Alliance account. It was one of those typically average big agency positions.)

First, I don't think there has ever been an executive who has made a successful transition from the client side to running an ad agency. Fudge was a marketing poobah at Kraft, and was a key client of the agency when I was working there in the 1990s. The agency business is messy and it's an abrupt change from the far tidier world of brand management at a big company.

But I don't think Fudge was the problem at Y&R. In fact, I applaud WPP for appointing her in the first place – it brought some long-needed diversity to the upper echelons of the big agency world. But like others before her, she was brought in to fix something that can't be fixed at Y&R. It's the history of the place.

Y&R's problem is Seth Godin's Purple Cow thing. It's always been one of the most incredibly innocuous agency brands -- not really outstanding at anything and not really that bad either. When I worked at the agency, there were plenty of people far smarter than me inhabiting those dreadfully dreary offices. It's just that the place had no mojo. Most people felt like there was a better job somewhere else. The creative wasn't usually bad, but it rarely rose to great or paradigm-shifting. (Of course, there are pockets of creativity in New York and the Chicago office does turn out some first-rate work, but the overall product is consistently mediocre.) The planning and media initiatives were always decent, but never quite amazing. The account people were solid, but probably not much better at relationship-building than any other agency and rarely champions of daring ideas.

In short, the agency was, and is, well, adequate. These days, for most marketers, adequate is awfully expensive.

My prediction? Sometime in the next two years, WPP will merge all of its adequate agencies – JWT, O&M and Y&R – into one agency that will be big and old and perfectly adequate. Only EVEN BIGGER.


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