Sad news in the advertising industry this week with the demise of Cliff Freeman & Partners, the legendary ad agency whose founder was responsible for, among other noteworthy entries, Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign.
The Ad Age article that describes the company’s closure cites various causes, including lack of a succession plan, an inability to evolve with the changing media landscape, and failed merger attempts.
Creative service companies often end up like Mr Freeman’s. From king of the hill to an industry by-line in a decade.
These three reasons are present in virtually every case:
- The inability or unwillingness of the founder to make themselves irrelevant. By the time Mr Freeman tried to do so, the company was operating from a position of relative weakness, and the management evolution appeared borne of desperation.
- A relentless focus on the service that made them successful, without ever understanding the core strength that made those services valuable - as the creator of memorable brand personalities, in any medium.
- Failed restructuring attempts. 80% of all mergers fail. When the underlying motivation is a shotgun wedding to fix a fundamental weakness, that number goes up into the high nineties. Mergers and acquisitions work when the chemistry is instinctive, or there is a clearly defined and articulated vision that one person takes responsibility for.
Mr Freeman isn’t the first to make these mistakes. And he won’t be the last.
But every one of them is avoidable.
At a time when the marketing food chain is changing before our eyes, the advertisng and production industries are in desperate need of better business models.
Head meet sand, however, is not one of them.