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The Blaney Bunch

Orlaith Blaney, CEO of McCann Erickson 

One of the most outspoken and passionate ad agency bosses, Orlaith Blaney talks to John McGee about the industry's many problems, what needs to be done to sort them out and what it is like to work with Jedward.

It's hard to switch on the TV these days without seeing the sugar-rushed twins John and Edward Grimes, aka Jedward,  going about their high-octane business on the 3 mobile phones. It's also difficult to escape the bearded Bord Bia farmer ( the thinking woman's Miley Byrne perhaps?) waxing lyrical about the culinary delights that Irish spring lamb and chicken offer the carnivorous palate.  While some consumers might prefer to see the brothers Grimes served up on a plate, instead of Chicken Little, it is fair to say that the two campaigns stand out as examples of strong Irish creative advertising in a market that is crying out for more.

Love them or loathe them, there is no denying that the zany twins have plenty of cache amongst a large swathe of Ireland's teen population - an important and growing market for mobile phone operator 3. And when you hear kids prefacing their conversations with their peers with "S'up?" you know the brand may have stumbled upon something big - even if it is a nod to the famous "Whassup" campaign which Budweiser ran between 1999 and 2002.

If you want, you can blame Orlaith Blaney and her team at McCann Erickson for unleashing the zany twins on our TV screens. The CEO of the agency, however has nothing but respect for the two brothers.

"They are insanely brilliant and totally bonkers and they bring a bit of fun into Irish advertising something which is sadly lacking these days. So yes, I am a huge fan of Jedward. They are making lots of money, working their asses off and they are having the time of their lives. You have to admire that, so good luck to them. But we are delighted that the campaign is going so well. It was also a really fun shoot to work on and it has attracted loads of great publicity, so hopefully it will deliver for the client," she says.

Apart from 3 Mobile, McCann Erickson's other clients include a raft of big Irish and international brands including the likes of Coca Cola, Powerade, L'Oreal, Tayto, B&Q, Shredded Wheat, Cheerios, Dairygold, Charleville Cheese, Unilever, Nescafe, Boyle Sports, MSD, Tullamore Dew and of course the bearded Bord Bia farmer.

With billings of €25m in 2010, a gross profit of €5.8m and an operating profit of €750,000 for the year, the agency is up there in the top five creative agencies in the country. Since it set up shop in Dublin 20 years ago, it has bagged numerous awards for its work with a range of different clients.

The agency is ultimately owned by the US advertising giant Interpublic Group, the third largest agency network group in the world after WPP and Publicis. Interpublic also owns media agencies Universal McCann, which works hand in glove with McCann Erickson, Initiative and the PR agency Weber Shandwick. McCann Erickson alone employs 32 staff while its media offshoot employs another 10 staff.

When Orlaith Blaney took over as CEO of the agency in 2003,  aged 32, she was the youngest agency boss in Dublin and possibly the UK, at the time. She was also the only female CEO in what was then (and still is) a male-dominated industry. Indeed to this day there are only three female CEOs running agencies in the Republic of Ireland  - Miriam Hughes at DDFH&B and Siobhan Lavery at ICAN.  But that's a different story.

Blaney is well known in the industry for her passionate and forthright opinions on everything from Irish rugby (her brothers Brian, Dermot, James and Dave are well known rugby players) Ireland's competitiveness, or lack of it as the case may be,   right through to the need for greater accountability and transparency in all matters relating to advertising and marketing. And by all accounts, she is a good boss to work for.

"If you were looking at the advertising industry from the outside you would clearly see that there are plenty of problems that need to be addressed and that are having a huge impact on how the industry operates and performs," she says.

"For a start off there is a massive oversupply of agencies in the market for the amount of business out there. If you look at the Nielsen adspend figures for the past few years you will see that there has been a huge drop off in terms of what brands are spending on advertising. The market has been in decline for the past few years yet there are still the same number of agencies out there all competing for a smaller piece of the action. That's not sustainable in my view and I am surprised there haven't been any casualties since McConnell's. I would suspect some agencies are under more pressure than others and it may be just a matter of time before some of them close altogether or else merge with each other. But the days of big international networks on the look-out for Irish agencies to buy are long over. The big international networks are only interested in rapidly emerging markets in the Far East or South America and unfortunately Ireland has a lot to do if we are to emerge from the economic situation we are in at the moment. So I think consolidation will become an urgent issue. "

Blaney is also highly critical of the lack of transparency which appears to have engulfed the industry as some (not all) agencies put too much emphasis on their bottom line, rather than the client's. This is particularly true in media buying she adds. "Paul Farrell (the new MD of Initiative) got it right when he said in IMJ (July 2010)  that the media model is broken. It's been broken for a while and there has been a distinct lack of clarity and transparency, particularly when it comes to the relationships between agencies and media owners. Clients are confused and they are not sure what is going on. That doesn't instil a lot of confidence in them, particularly when they are spending more than half their budget on media and it's certainly not good for the industry."

This can often lead to a lack of trust between the agency and the client, Blaney argues. "Over the last couple of years I think the nature of many client agency relationships has become more transactional -you get the job in and you get it out again and you don't overservice the client. But this can lead to dissipation in the relationship and trust goes out the window. In this business, trust is everything and it goes to the heart of the agency-client relationship.

"You have to have the relationship with the client if you want to challenge a brief and only then can they can turn around and say ‘I trust McErickson to go off an open it up this brief.' In many ways it begins and ends with excellent relationships. Do they trust you? Do they believe in the integrity of your people and their ability to get the job done and that you are not just trying to sell them stuff. There is a feeling out there amongst clients that all agencies want to do is talk about is money and how will they get paid for the work. There is nothing more annoying for a client than to be greeted by the finance guy at the end of a briefing to discuss payment terms. While pay is of huge importance to agencies, the relationship and trust should take priority."

Short-termism of a different kind, however, is also hurting the industry. "Clients are working month-to-month  and quarter-to-quarter and because of this, there is no clear visibility about what their longer term requirements are. In many cases they are not managing a year's budget but instead budgets are being allocated on a project-by-project basis. This makes it very difficult to plan ahead for an agency. But then again, we have to realise that clients too are under enormous pressure from within their own organisations. Managing the relationship with their agency is only a small part of what they do. Some agencies can lose sight of that and they think that they are at the epicentre of the client's world. The reality is they are not," says Blaney.

"On top of this you only have to look at the number of multinational companies that have pulled some or all of their marketing departments out of Ireland and back to the UK. This has been a worrying trend for a while. How long will it be before they come back? Will it be 2-5 years? I would like sooner but I honestly believe that when they do get around to doing some market research, they will find a dip in their sales and that their equity scores will have dropped. Then, maybe, they will come back."

Surprisingly for an agency that is part of a large multinational network, McCann Erickson deliberately avoided the rush by competitor agencies to jump on the integrated bandwagon by hiring lots of staff in digital, DM and PR.  While the agency sticks to its knitting of creative and planning, it can also offer media through Universal McCann (headed up by Martina Stenson) and PR through Weber Shandwick (headed up by Mary McCarthy and Siobhan Molloy), both of which are ultimately owned by Interpublic. They also occupy the same building as McCann Erickson on Dublin's Pembroke Street and enjoy a fruitful and symbiotic relationship with it. Digital, meanwhile, is offered by Zoo Digital, the agency set up by Colin Hetherington, the former head of Agency.com. Zoo also happens to be in the same building and works closely with a number of McCann's clients.

"Many agencies have built their model around integration and boast of the fact that they can offer everything from creative and media to PR and digital. On paper that makes sense. Get it all in the one place and serve it up to the client as one package. However client behaviour in this town now suggests that they are less open to the integrated offering, preferring to spread their business around by using one agency for PR, another for digital and another for press or TV. This is particularly true when it comes to project work. That way they have the luxury of being able to pick their team and if they can manage that whole process, and many of them are doing that, they can get great output and often for better terms than they would with a fully integrated agency.  We have seen that here on many occasions with clients like Coke and Tayto. But you need a really strong client who can manage and pull all the different relationships together to make them work," says Blaney.

"In terms of digital and what's going on in the market place, the reality is that Ireland is a tiny market and very few clients want a digital only strategy. We have seen that with some of our own clients who would far rather be on TV than online just for the sake of it. You cannot underestimate the power of TV and yes it is important to engage with audiences online but ultimately it's about delivering results for the client in terms of sales and I am not sure if there is enough evidence to show or measure things like how many of your 10,000 Facebook followers actually buy your product. Apart from the size of the market, digital has also been held back by lack of adequate broadband around the country although this is changing slowly. And from an agency perspective digital is very labour intensive and can be difficult to make money out of. While we have some good digital agencies in this country, I think we have a good way to go before we are anywhere near the kind of work they are doing in the USA or the UK."

While there is no doubting the quality of McCann Erickson's client list, the big one that got away towards the end of last year was Heineken, a brand that has a long association with the agency. While it was a big blow to the McCann Erickson team that had worked with it, Rothco, which won the account has gone on to create some clever international advertising for the brand.  But in adland, accounts come and go all the time.

"We has the business for 8 years and we lots of awards with it and we had good KPIs. In 2010 we hit a road bump with them. The parting was very amicable and all credit to Rothco for the work they have done since. But eight years is a good innings and you nothing goes on forever," says Blaney.

Try telling that to Jedward. 

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (September, 2011)© to order back issues please call 01 6611660. 

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