Voices from the back of the drawer.

Occasionally, rummaging through the back of the drawer turns up a gem. In this case, a merger pencil.  To me the no.3 lead was always the perfect choice, especially during a merger or IPO; no.2 was always a bit too soft for my taste. This was the mighty tool, long before we had computers on every desk. This, a blank sheet of paper and a cup of coffee was the ideal way to start any project. It still is a superior set of tools.

This post isn’t really about the pencil but rather the merger stamped across the surface. I have lived and worked through a number of mergers and IPO’s in my agency life and at this point, I can say with some degree of confidence that they are events that do little to elevate or even maintain the level and quality of the work. In fact, with rare exception, it is quite the opposite.

In the near term these events also do very little to help most of the agency client base, save perhaps the largest. In the long run, many years down the road organizations like Wire and Plastic Products have turned up as a global agency juggernaut, best known as WPP.  Sir Martin sure knows what he’s doing in this regard.  Before building WPP into one of the world’s top agency networks he was finance director of Saatchi & Saatchi  — see the merger pencil above. The team at WPP seem to have it all worked out, not so for the failed Publicis-Omnicom courtship. Was the proposed merger love only at first bite?

What’s working brilliantly for WPP did not turn out so well at the time for Saatchi & Saatchi. As the go- go 80’s imploded there was all kinds of intrigue and mayhem and loss of business as the operation began to unravel. Yet, it was fabulous to be there because at the time, it was the place to be…until it wasn’t. I should note that for many years now Saatchi & Saatchi is back on high ground and has been knocking out some great work, but it was a long road back.

Mergers and IPO’s for large agency groups comes down to winners and losers. All the bather about a “merging of equals” or how being a publicly traded company will not change the culture are fantasies of good will. And how it will not mean a loss of jobs or impact clients — good intention perhaps, but not reality. Too many moving parts to manage effectively. A familiar scene across many industries.

On the rare occasion, when it works, it works because the dominant agency is a top-ranked creative powerhouse and that is the driving culture. The executive team is identified and the agenda is supported and maintained throughout the process, across the entire new organization with no excuses and with respect all around.  The goal is to deliver the same great product across the globe as well as around the block. A rising tide lifts all boats.

When it doesn’t work, it’s because the merger or IPO is an exercise in financial control designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This unleashes all kinds of grief and stress because this agenda does not always align well with doing what’s best and right for your clients and their brands.

When it works you see little turnover of talent and business. When it doesn’t, you see years of management change, talent flight and loss of accounts.

On the occasion of the pencil seen above, Saatchi & Saatchi Dorland was the UK based network agency and Saatchi & Saatchi Compton was the US arm. They merged DFS and Dorland to create DFS-Dorland which existed for a fairly brief period before they combined all of us into my very special Yellow no.3 pencil. I save these pencils as Momento mori, small monuments to help remember that even the best of hard work and talent can be defeated by the ephemeral trappings of seeking scale for the sake of scale, rather than in service of your agency product.

As for my collection of pencils, I keep them at hand because putting ideas to paper remains essential regardless of the names changing over the door. Which reminds me, I need to order up some no.3’s for Brandforming.