From a relentless scrapper to an agency that offers free cuddles, Carat has turned into a very different beast over the last 18 months. It’s a tale of our times, writes Dominic Mills.
You know how Millwall fans feel about themselves: the more everyone hates them, the more they like it.
Carat used to be the Millwall of media buyers. It revelled in it. Tough, ugly, them against the world. In fact, that was how most media buyers liked to portray themselves. Carat just took it further than the others.
But it worked. For many years, thanks to a single-minded focus and a relentless approach to client service, Carat UK sat atop the billings league.
But today’s Carat is a very different beast.
Last week, for example, it announced ‘Wellness Month‘ – four weeks of free cuddliness for staff: reflexology, pilates, meditation, use of a ‘sleep pod’ (as opposed to snoozing under your desk after a heavy lunch) and even pole dancing and floristry lessons. All very metrosexual.
It was somewhat ironic, however – and purely coincidental, no doubt – that Wellness Month was announced just days after Carat heard it had lost the Sony business. Perhaps the disappointment was so shattering, management felt the need to spread some TLC.
But Carat’s journey (and its direct parent, Aegis) over the last 18 months is nevertheless an interesting one, and in many ways a tale of our times. Yes, it shrugged off the Millwall persona a few years ago, but more recently it has taken major steps to reinvent itself as a media agency for modern times.
That has certainly reaped dividends, notwithstanding the Sony defeat: no losses, it says, in the last 18 months, wins from Microsoft, Mondelez and Lionsgate, and a successful defence of Arla.
We can laugh at the idea of pole-dancing lessons for staff, but many of the things it now does (and which would have been derided before) such as working with local schools and the Prince’s Trust to develop diversity and non-traditional talent, are breeding a committed workforce.
Staff churn is 18%, significantly below the industry average of around 25-30%, and traditionally media agencies, with their Millwall-style work cultures, were at the higher end of this scale. You can’t help but believe that a stable, looked-after staff contributes significantly.
But it’s also about structure too. Carat UK managing director Matthew Hook says pitches used to be about money and the agency coming up with one big idea. “Now they’re about our structure, the client’s structure, and the digital landscape,” he says. This naturally involves sister digital agencies like iProspect, Isobar, Fetch and Amnet.
For Carat parent Aegis, this means presenting clients with a unified, one-pl, one-CEO face. As media becomes more complex, the need to join it all up is paramount. And there’s nothing that turns a client off as much as agencies squabbling amongst themselves about who does what and who gets paid for what, especially when they’re in the same group.
So how does the one-pl approach play out in real life? Hook says he sits down every week with his counterparts at Dentsu/Aegis’s 15 UK subsidiaries, and they all work to one budget line. “If my client needs a bit less from Carat, and a bit more from Fetch, then that’s how it is. It’s no problem.”
Hmm. I remain sceptical, and I bet there’s an awful lot of back-room squabbling as money is shifted round internally. After all, you don’t climb the greasy pole of a media agency without fighting your corner about money.
But what do I know? Sony apart, it seems to be working for Aegis/Carat, and Hook claims the agency has been growing by revenue at twice the speed of the market (8% vs 4% in the market).
Part of this may be down to Aegis’s ability to offer, and sell, clients higher-value services other than traditional media planning and buying such as mobile (through Fetch), insight (D2D), digital creative (Isobar) and so on.
Hook says traditional planning and buying now accounts for around 35% of Carat’s revenues, down from about half three years ago.
I don’t know how that compares with Carat’s peers. It is, I suspect, a little ahead of them.
But what strikes me as I visit the big media agencies, is that they are all, to some degree, re-inventing themselves. This is both cultural – you can see evidence of ‘metrosexuality’ at nearly all of them – and operational, as they add more and more services and widen the scope of their offering.
It’s easy, and I succumb myself from time to time, to believe that they’re a) in a price-driven race to the bottom and b) fighting a battle to hold onto (or regain) client trust.
But Hook doesn’t see it that way. “You’re on the road to hell,” I say to provoke him, thinking of the trenchant views of my fellow columnist Bob Wootton.
But Hook is having none of this. “Rubbish, no,” he retorts. “As an industry we’re in rude health.”
‘Der Schwindler’ goes back on telly
The German for cheat is ‘Der Betruger’, and the German for liar is ‘Der Schwindler’. Sadly VW has dropped the endline Das Auto, thus denying pranksters endless fun inserting a new, more appropriate line to its TV ads.
Last week it released a new pan-European TV ad (below), its first since the emissions cheating scandal broke.
The best you can say is that it is completely inoffensive, even down to the bland, indie-pop soundtrack (I’ll be Your Home, by Phillip Larue, if you’re asking).
You get the sense that, like a badly-behaved dog that slinks off behind the chair hoping not to draw any attention to itself, VW is terrified of saying anything in case it gets noticed and smacked again.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that, unlike previous ads, which were all about engineering, design and technology, this is about emotion. As the ad says, “It’s more than just a car, it’s a lifelong companion. Then. Now. Always.”
Yuk. As sales continue to slump (down 13.9% January on January in the UK for the VW marque itself), VW feels less and less like a ‘Now’ brand, and more like a ‘Then’ one.