Don’t Call Us a Traditional Agency

David Sable is CEO of Y&R, the 88-year-old advertising agency with 6,500 staffers that’s owned by WPP Group. Sable was named CEO in February following a decade at Wunderman, the Y&R Brands direct agency, where he was most recently vice chairman and COO. He spoke to Digiday about his view of the digital world from the head of an established global agency. He addressed why social media doesn’t really change advertising much, the corrosive nature of Web anonymity, and why many hot digital agencies will be long gone while so-called traditional shops continue. Follow him on Twitter @davidsable.

How has the Web’s becoming more social changed what ad agencies do?
If you think about what advertising used to do, people used to talk about it, share it and share the product. What amazes me is some who think the Web created the human race of social beings. The problem we’re having in social is people think there’s some magic out there called social. Put a share button on something and you’ve created a social platform, and sales will go through the roof. The truth is if you have a conversation with someone, a conversation gets repeated if it’s smart and interesting. It’s the same with advertising. People repeat and share it if it’s interesting or educational. Agencies think they need things to go viral. They create stuff that maybe gets shared but has nothing to do with the product they’re selling. They’ll crow about the 5 million views they had, but meanwhile the sales don’t move. Someone else thinks about the product, does the basics and thinks about the value of people getting the message. Y&R years ago created a Lays campaign, “Bet you can’t eat just one.” When you think about it, that became a cultural line. It was also always related to the product. That was long before the Web and Facebook, and it was hugely social.

There’s an ongoing debate about the value of Web anonymity. Why are you against it?
It seems to me that everything is about accountability. You don’t want the guy to get wacked in Syria because his name was out there. That guy needs to be anonymous. The guy who posts that somebody is a jerk or gives false information doesn’t deserve the ability to post. I think there’s an issue here. There’s a credibility in knowing who you are that adds value to the conversation. It makes me more comfortable answering. There’s an accountability in putting out who you are.

Anonymous commenters on ad-industry sites are pretty rough. Why is that?
I don’t know we’re worse than anybody else. We’re a paranoid industry. We’re only as good as the last campaign. The last 10 years have been difficult with layoffs and uncertainty. This has always been an industry that felt underpaid compared to clients. We used to count ceiling tiles to see how big their offices were. I think in our industry there’s been a bit of an inferiority complex, and it’s easy to lash out. It mystifies me. I think what’s the point. I pay zero attention to them. They’re ridiculous. It’s a disgruntled somebody who doesn’t have the balls to put their name down.

Some say agencies need to think more like software companies. Do you buy that?
They should talk to IBM and Microsoft who are getting into the client services business. It’s people not getting what they’re talking about. Software companies are in the services business. We’re in the services business. We have to go talk to clients. We have to send sales people. It’s not enough to send an email. They need a real person to talk to. I think it’s the other way around. I think software companies are thinking like agencies. They understand that they need to be creative. They’re selling ideas.

There were plenty who decreed “traditional” agencies like Y&R were doomed. What were those critics missing?
What they missed is you can take the label off a can of tuna fish and claim it’s foie gras and it’s still tuna fish. You can call yourself a digital experiential emporium, but you’re either an ad agency or not. You’re either driving business for your clients in media or not. That’s the problem they don’t get. There’s no such thing as a traditional ad agency. Y&R was involved in the earliest days of radio, print and TV. We were innovators in digital as far as I was concerned. We were building websites here in 1990 for clients. I’m not embarrassed to say I’m an ad agency. Hopefully in 100 years Y&R will be here. Ninety percent of the digital geniuses will be gone and forgotten. People will still remember “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” and people won’t remember the fly-by-night stuff they did.  Go to Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo. What are they all selling? Advertising. They have advertising departments. They’re not calling it brand experience departments.

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