Skip to content

Life in a Big Agency Network

2010 December 19
by Greg Satell

Last April, I went to work at a global agency network, which was a new thing  for me.  For most of my career, I’ve been working for local companies on what agencies call, “the supplier side.”  In other words, I have been mostly been figuring out how to create and sell media rather than what to do with it.

Nevertheless, I had built enough of a reputation in the advertising community that I was given the opportunity to start up a special strategic unit at ZenithOptimedia in Turkey.  Unfortunately, mostly for family reasons, I had to resign my position in September, but stayed on till December.

Having heard much, and much untrue, about the how the big agency world was bureaucratic, impersonal and behind the curve, I wanted to relate my experience.

A Short Guide to Global Agency Networks

The network agency world can be confusing to the uninitiated.  Over the past few decades, full service agencies have metastasized into a wide array of specialist companies that focus on creative, media, direct marketing, events and just about anything else in the marketing arena you could imagine.

They have also consolidated, mainly into four enormous holding companies: Publicis Groupe, WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic.  Mostly formed over the past decade or so, these firms try to cobble together a number of global brands, many of them competitive with each other, into one coherent strategy that offers “best of breed” specialization as well as an integrated service.

The company that I worked for, ZenithOptimedia, focuses on media and was formerly part of Saatchi& Saatchi, but since both were bought by Publicis Groupe, it has operated more independently.  Rather than being associated with any creative brand, it is now part of VivaKi, an umbrella brand that Publicis created to coordinate digital and media activities.

My viewpoint, therefore reflects that perspective and might not pertain to the agency world at large.

My Personal Experience

At first, my involvement at ZenithOptimedia was pretty much what you would expect.  They had lots of sophisticated tools and processes to optimize media planning and buying.  These are the bread and butter of large media agencies and provide clients with not only the assurance that they are getting the maximum ROI, but accountability and transparency as well.

One program was indeed different.  Called TouchPoints, it studies brand contact points across a wide array of consumer/brand interactions, from TV to word of mouth, from digital to packaging.  The results usually correlate 80%-90% with market share, so the program has been very effective in sorting out what really works and what doesn’t.

However, the most surprising thing that I found was that, despite it’s size, ZenithOptimedia was a fantastic place to work, full of friendly, helpful people who really know their stuff.

Although I was working in a secondary market, whenever I called someone in London for help or advice, invariably they treated me as if their only responsibility was to aid me in whatever I was trying to get done (and these were very busy people).

Into the Larger World of VivaKi

When I announced in September that I was leaving, one of the people in London offered to introduce me to a board member of VivaKi, who might be able to find something that would suit my personal situation better.

Although this person was not only very senior, but also quite a big name in the greater marketing world at large, he treated me with kindness and graciousness that was almost overwhelming.
He invited me to return to the US and meet with VivaKi’s digital brands.

There was Moxie Interactive which, although it considers itself a creative brand, does some astoundingly sophisticated work in social listening, semantic applications and other cutting edge technologies.  Digitas Health goes beyond just marketing proficiency.  They are also experts in the medical and legal issues of pharmaceuticals.  Razorfish consults on overall digital strategy and builds enterprise level solutions.

Much like ZenithOptimedia, each person I met was not only an expert in their field, but friendly and inviting.  They seemed as interested in my experiences in emerging markets as I was in the pioneering work that they were doing.

In contrast to the blogosphere, which can often be a nasty place full of know-it-alls, the people at these large, supposedly impersonal, institutions were as courteous as could be.  Moreover, rather than being contemptuous of the traditional media world, the digital people were able to collaborate with their counterparts within VivaKi to win business and better serve clients.

The Future?

If you spend enough time on Twitter and LinkedIn discussions, or even just in the business press, you get the impression that the future belongs to the quick and nimble upstarts.  As the narrative goes, big global companies, like the ones I encountered in Publicis Groupe, are just dinosaurs waiting to become extinct.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of my good friends in the blog and social media world, I have to say that my experience in a big agency network points in exactly the opposite direction.

While surely not perfect, most of the people I’ve met and worked with have been highly skilled professionals who are committed to delivering value for their clients.  Moreover, they are succeeding.  (A recent Businessweek article came to similar conclusions).

As for me, I’ll be taking some time off before the next adventure, so stay tuned.  Right now, I’m back in Kiev, trying not to be one of those fathers who is constantly pushing his kid’s pictures in front of everybody.

But really, have you EVER seen ANYTHING so CUTE?  C’mon,  tell the truth…

– Greg

10 Responses leave one →
  1. December 19, 2010

    Another great story. Cutest little baby since my own little ginger-haired baby, now 19.!/album.php?aid=23284&id=1367444913

  2. December 19, 2010


    Thanks. I hope I make it through the next 19years. If she’s anything like her father, it’s sure to be an adventure!

    Best of luck in the New Year!

    – Greg

  3. December 20, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    As usual you deliver fresh and original thinking that goes against “common knowledge” and herd thinking. Congratulations for being able to live the life the way that you want to and especially for your beautiful baby and family.

    Please tell me that you will be able to continue Digital Tonto, it is something that I look forward to every week and I’m sure that you have many fans that feel the same way.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family,


  4. December 20, 2010


    Thanks for the compliment. Of course, Tonto lives on, no matter what country I happen to find myself in:-)

    – Greg

  5. December 20, 2010

    Thoughtful comments. I generally agree with you.
    Expertise and competence are often overlooked in favour of ‘buzz’.
    Thank you.

  6. December 20, 2010

    Thanks, Sara.

    – Greg

  7. December 20, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. I spent 12 years at a Publicis company and would concur that all of the people whom I encountered wanted to provide the best possible service to their clients. They are all smart, successful people who will work tirelessly to find the right answers for a particular business.

    I am happy to have had a wonderful career at Publicis and consider myself fortunate to still work with them on a consultant basis.

    Good luck in your next adventures whatever that may be. Look forward to hearing about them.

    all the best,

  8. December 20, 2010

    Thanks, Sue. How are things going at PoshPorts?

    – Greg

  9. December 21, 2010

    Terrific, currently setting up our marketplace and store. Learning more everyday it’s a wonderful and exciting experience. Happy Holidays to you and your beautiful family 🙂

  10. December 21, 2010

    Glad to hear it! Happy Holidays to you too.

    – Greg

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS