I've been 'mauled' by a member of the digital royal family

22 Sep 2014  |  Dominic Mills 
I've been 'mauled' by a member of the digital royal family

In trying to understand why there are hardly any digital agencies on the short-list for the IPA's Effectiveness awards, Dominic Mills has seriously ruffled some feathers.

Ouch. At least that's what I think I'm supposed to say after Fern Miller, chief strategy and insight officer of DigitasLBi, had a go at me last week.

She was responding - on behalf of the whole digital sector no less, which is very decent of her - after I queried why digital agencies were so under-represented in the short-list for the IPA Effectiveness awards.

I'm hedging my summary of her response in the conditional because, to be honest, I'm a bit confused by it. If you can, get past the tortured analogy of me as the Queen, the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and Chinese women who didn't want to become a member of the prestigious Hong Kong Club (I've been there and it is indeed exclusive but also populated by lots of women of Oriental origin).

Then try to work out what she's saying.

I think it's this: one, that the Effectiveness awards are just another ponced-up evening out for the great-and-the-good of the advertising agency fraternity; two, that digital agencies are far too busy doing meaningful work for their clients, work in her words that is "transformational and produces new commercial models and services"; and three, that the work of digital agencies is so self-evidently effective that there is no need to prove it by entering anything as grubby as a set of awards.

Still, if it's analogies you're after, a more useful one might have been Groucho Marx's on joining a club: that he wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would allow him in.

From Ms Miller's response, you'd think that DigitasLBi shunned awards altogether. This doesn't seem to be the case. Here are a few lines from a DigitasLBi press release swanking about their awards tally... "In 2012, Digitas and LBi received a combined total of over 200 awards globally including two Cannes Lions Grand Prix's and SXSW People's Choice Award. Digitas was also recently named OMMA Agency of the Year 2012 and LBi UK Digital Agency of the Year 2012 by Marketing magazine."

(I'll leave it to the agency to explain why the awards tally only refers to 2012, while the release is dated January 2014.)

Back to the matter in hand. There's a more illuminating response underneath my original column from Rosie Yacob of Genius Steals, who believes that the reasons digital agencies don't want to play the effectiveness game are, at root, cultural - except not in the way I describe.

I'll bow to her superior knowledge of digital agencies. Nonetheless, I believe effectiveness is an attribute all agencies, not just creative or media, should seek to demonstrate, and that the IPA's Effectiveness awards represent the summit.

Do they also represent an advert for the participating agencies? Of course, but what's wrong with that? Awards - of all shapes and sizes - are how agencies present themselves. It cannot be a coincidence that the best-regarded agencies - AMV BBDO, BBH, VCCP, Ogilvy, Mindshare, OMD, PHD - are the ones that consistently do well in the effectiveness league tables.

Nor can it be said that clients don't take effectiveness awards seriously. Since a good entry requires access to sometimes sensitive information, you can't enter without the active agreement and, in many cases, participation of the client. When the likes of Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Sainsbury's, Mercedes and Renault sanction entries, that tells me something of their regard for the awards.

So the idea, as Miller suggests, that the Effectiveness awards constitutes some elite club where the blue-bloods of adland pat themselves on the back doesn't ring true to me. As I pointed out last week, the short-list also includes some smaller clients like Karcher, charities, and Specsavers - the latter definitely not a member of the establishment club.

Nor does her theory that winners pull an 'ROI rabbit out of an expensive econometric top hat' - now that is an analogy I do like - carry weight.

This year's short-list has been judged by, among others, the most senior marketers at BA, Asda, Sky, Avis, EDF and Mercedes. The idea that they can be fooled by an 'ROI rabbit' is frankly insulting. And the chair of the judges is Lord Davies of Abersoch, formerly chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank, who probably knows more about econometrics than the rest of the panel put together.

Best job in the world: a WPP lawyer

High up on the list of best legal jobs in the world must be that of a lawyer working for WPP. Last week, with the news that WPP is taking on the UK government over the potential loss of its media-buying contract to Carat, the group's legal eagles have another chance to sharpen their claws.

Sir Martin - whose middle name must be 'Litigation' - both hates to be beaten and if he is, likes nothing better than to resort to the law to prove his point, as countless former WPP executives, opponents and, yes, hacks, have discovered to their cost. Meanwhile, the WPP lawyers fist-bump, count the money, and chalk up another 'kill'.

My former colleague Arif Durrani must have had a premonition (actually, more like a helpful briefing) when he presciently hinted at this likely course of action a full week before the lawyers pounced.

Some people will say WPP is mad to challenge the government. But I don't think so, especially if is it on a matter of process. As Virgin Trains and serial IT suppliers to the public sector have found, the government is uniquely vulnerable to legal challenges to purchasing decisions. Bureaucrats being as they are, there is every chance they have missed a comma or failed to cross a t in the process.

That being so, they are open to challenge, and I imagine, having a collective panic attack as I write.

What's interesting, of course, is that you cannot imagine WPP mounting a legal challenge to, say, Unilever or Ford over a loss of business. That way would lie insanity, even if the process was flawed in some way or the client just said: 'You know what? I just don't like you, so I'm taking my business away.' If they did, the next time a WPP agency pitched it would be toast.

But public sector bodies can't do that. And that's why, even if it loses, WPP wins. Tempted as it might be, no government department would dare take retribution. And as for future decisions involving WPP, well, they'll err on the side of caution.

Meanwhile, if I was Carat, I'd be lining up my lawyers to challenge the challenge. If this sounds like Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens' Bleak House, how apt.

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Bob Wootton, Director, Isba on 22 Sep 2014
“Enjoyed this piece as ever. Agree that your mauling was too esoteric to inflict wounds and wondering how the assailant squares her rhetoric with her host agency's stance.

And then there's WPP resorting to litigation over a lost pitch. What a development - as you suggest, a lot of clients and competitor agencies will be watching how it unfolds very intently indeed!”

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