"Vampire Squid WPP wins holding company of the year at Cannes"

Heartfelt congratulations go out to Martin Sorrell on WPP’s “stunning performance” in winning the prestigious “holding company of the year” for the third year running at Cannes.

Of all the awards at Cannes, this surely is the pinnacle, the piece de resistance, the crème de la crème, the dog’s bollocks.

Or is all just a load of bollocks?

I know that the advertising world is ruled by the shape shifting lizards from holding companies, but it seems so ridiculous that such a category like “holding company of the year” exists in the first place. 

It seems such a narrow, unrepresentative and self-serving definition of creativity to have an entirely separate category solely for holding companies to battle it out for such an arbitrary and meaningless title. 

It can’t be anything to do with money can it?

I guess the Cannes organisers have figured out that they can generate piles of cash from entries from cash rich holding companies if they have a special crown they dish out every year.

Looking at this in the cold light of day it just seems odd and plain wrong.

It’s like there being a separate title for most awarded film studio at the Oscars that only the four biggest studios can enter.  Or having an award at the Grammy’s that only the multinational record labels can enter.

Might be worth the Cannes committee considering other arbitrary awards for other sub-groups of agencies as an additional money-spinning exercise.

How about an award for “most creative company of the year with more than two vowels in its name” or “most creative company who have laid off more than 15% of its staff this year” or “most creative company with more than 6 million air miles”. I’m sure these random categories would encourage even more entries from WPP [although they’d probably struggle to win the first category, they’d argue it on a technicality that WPP originally stood for Wire & Plastic Products which is chock full of vowels].

Putting aside the distorted reality that Cannes promotes by pandering to the big networks, the most frightening thing about “holding company of the year” is that it perpetuates the dangerous myth that the big networks truly value creativity and are driven to produce the best possible work for all of their clients.

Awards schemes like Cannes are purely a smokescreen that the behemoth bean-counters can hide behind and use to pretend to journalists, clients and employees that creativity, rather than filthy lucre, is their reason for being.

Now, I’m not saying that making a profit isn’t important. It is.

And I’m not saying that networks like WPP aren’t capable of making great work. They are. [Grey’s work for the British Heart Foundation being a case in point].

The issue is more about the hyperbolic public myth-making that creativity is at the forefront of these business when the opposite is often true.

The campaigns that win awards for holding companies at Cannes aren’t the tip of the iceberg. They may well be great pieces of creativity in their own right but they are often isolated examples and they do not accurately represent the real quality of the creative output of those agencies.

One of our mantras here is “it’s not how good the best of your work is, it’s how good the rest of your work is”.

The depth of high quality creative work that an agency produces across the board for all its clients is the only thing that should matter. Not its ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat for the occasional client now and again. 

I know enough unhappy people working their socks off at agencies owned by holding companies to support the view that ultimately it is the God of the stockmarket and shareholders who are being put first rather than outstanding creative work.

The two things shouldn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive but they often are. Phrases like “doing what the client says to keep them happy” and “only doing it for the money” are regularly bandied around by holding company staffers.  This kind of culture and environment is never conducive to doing great work. And clients often suffer too as internal agendas and pressure to increase fees/generate more “revenue opportunities” can result in the promotion of nest-feathering activity that benefits an agency but is not necessarily in a client’s best interests.

Bob Hoffman’s already magnificently articulated the damage that holding companies are doing to the business here and here.

It’s high time this point of view got wider exposure but with things like Sorrell’s “WPP’s stunning Cannes performance” dominating the headlines, a balanced picture is unlikely to emerge.

In an attempt to redress the balance in our own small way, I leave you with this quotation. Originally coined by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone to describe Goldman Sachs, I think it could equally be applied to WPP…  

A great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

Harsh? Not Harsh Enough? You decide. Answers on a postcard.


  1. http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/news/article/1187420/grindr-popular-app-cannes-lions-2013/

  2. I used to work at a company owned by WPP and they couldn't give less of a shit about creativity until the Gunn report had an effect on share price. Now agencies are getting huge amounts of money (£1 million I believe) just to make and run ads to win awards.


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