Like all weddings you’d think you could tell a lot from the way the happy couple posed for the pictures from the big day. The front page of yesterday’s Financial Times carried a charming photograph of a fresh partnership between two men of a certain age who haven’t let the fact that they’re both bosses of rivalrous advertising groups get in the way of their business romance.
Maurice Lévy, chief executive of French firm Publicis and John Wren, his opposite number at US giant Omnicom were all smiles as they joshed, joked and play-fought in front of the Arc de Triomphe. The announcement of the union of their two companies will create the world’s largest advertising and marketing monolith, to be called the Publicis Omnicom Group, a firm that overtakes WPP as the biggest in the world.
It was a romance that few people saw coming but one that maybe they should have spied on the horizon as it signals the changing landscape of the advertising industry – at least at this, it’s most industrial size. We who don’t work in advertising often have an image of a cool cottage industry that serves heavy business with sexy, clever and daring ideas. Firms that make chemicals, canned goods and cars have always been better off sticking to their manufacturing core and hiring a crew of wise-cracking, tuned-in whizz-kids to turn their products into brands and their brands into desirable destinations, if just for the split second it takes to choose between two boxes of washing powder on a supermarket shelf. We think of Mad Men, of Madison Avenue, we think of the genius of the Saatchi brothers and their witty and persuasive campaigns that took cliché and ran with it, impacting governments, buying habits, even contemporary prose.
But of course, advertising was never an industry that desired to be the size of the industries by which it was hired. Agencies became brands that stood for key qualities just as much as their paymasters did and takeovers, admittedly never of the size of the $35bn (€26.37bn) deal being brokered between Publicis and Omnicom, became common. Shareholders became involved and margins, especially, in the past five years, became squeezed to the point where an interesting sector that linked big business with graduates of art and design schools and English and history graduates, tried to completely eliminate risk, do away with the hunch.
Big data is the hottest and most profitable thing to own in these days of being able to know almost every fact and facet of a person’s social and buying habits. Algorithms are running in computers right now that are going to tell companies that you’ll buy Colgate toothpaste next time you’re in Tesco and that you watched Top Gear online last night and afterwards searched the internet for prices on a second-hand sportscar while messaging a friend online about buying EasyJet tickets to Ibiza in a month. All that rather insidiously begotten knowledge is almost priceless to the agencies that brands employ to make them sell more and it’s only in order to expand to the size of – and thereby potentially challenge – the tech giants such as Google (who as you know, know everything – including the name of your first-born – before you ever will). Why almost priceless? Well, because it does seem to have a price and today it is $35bn.
It’s just a bit sad, isn’t it? Advertising seemed to be cooler when it was hard-drinking creatives taking a punt on a great bit of photography and a memorable pun than it is ruled by programmers, algorithms and the false bonhomie of big business, bullying itself to behave as it walks down the aisle.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle.