Fighting talk from the independent quarter

Piers Schmidt counts on his belief in the Rule of Five that dominates the world of business and how his theory mimics survival tactics of the animal kingdom

Experience an African safari and you’ll probably come face to face with the Big Five: lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant and leopard.

These masters of the bush hunt their territory, devouring what they need to grow, before allowing their smaller brethren to forage in their wake for scraps. Observing these animals close-up from the safety of a Land Rover is an object lesson in natural selection. But it’s tempting to mistake this spectacle for a cute sideshow on the periphery of our own superior existence.

Consider this. Humans too are ruled by a set of Big Fives. Most industries have produced their own variants of these hungry animals that dominate their field in selfish satisfaction of their own voracious appetites. The music industry revolves around Polygram, EMI, Warner, Sony and BMG. Solicitors call their Big Five the Magic Circle – Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters & Alliance, Allen & Overy and Slaughter and May. Brits buy their cars from Ford, Vauxhall, Volkwagen, Renault and Peugeot. Pop a pill and it will have been made by Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, AstraZeneca or the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company.

If you’re hunting for commercial equivalents of Africa’s Big Five, there are plenty more to stalk: the original G5 nations, the five daily broadsheets, five terrestrial TV channels, five major supermarkets.

These examples illustrate the coalescence of industries around five majors – seemingly the maximum number of dominant occupiers that a natural habitat or market can sustain. This phenomenon (which I dub the Rule of Five) is a commercial parallel to Mother Nature’s selection and survival of the fittest where the strong grow stronger (rich, richer) and the small and weak either perish or fall prey to their larger competitors.

The Rule of Five is also evident in our own reserve – the creative services industry: The Interpublic Group, WPP Group, Omnicom, Dentsu, and Havas Advertising. In the design industry specifically, the guardians of the waterhole are Interbrand, FutureBrand, Enterprise IG, Landor Associates and the nascent Fitch. But what a pale imitation of nature we humans are. Years of evolution created animals like the rhino and the buffalo; spectacular, individual creatures, wonderful for their difference in both form and function.

But imagine you were a lion on that Land Rover viewing through your bifocals the daily rituals of the big brand consultancies. What mishap of nature, you’d ask, created this freakish act of cloning? For Darwin’s sake, two of them even share the same name.

Over the past five years we’ve seen a spate of acquisitions and mergers in the reserve as the Big Five have snapped up weaker cousins. Newell and Sorrell provided a three-year ‘degustation’ for Interbrand, while FutureBrand bit back with Davies Baron. One by one our fellow inhabitants have fallen prey: Bamber Forsyth, New Solutions, The Partners, Springpoint, The Brand Union, Wolff Olins, Luxon Carrà, to name a few.

Now the terrain is looking depleted. On a quick scout of the UK, I can spot about 20 significant independent firms remaining, but in a year the numbers will have fallen again. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the community was being replenished with strong, new offspring. But survival is becoming harder. Food may not actually be getting scarcer but the Big Five are continually honing their predatory skills. A Big Five chief executive officer told me recently that the only purpose of his group was to create an unlevel playing field for its member groups. So that’s why it often feels like an uphill struggle. On account of this struggle, the birth rate and, more importantly, the survival and growth rate of new offspring have slowed dramatically.

But before those of us who remain bow to the inevitable, there is another way.

At the end of an early morning game drive, the ranger suddenly cuts his engine and whispers, ‘Leopard’. Camouflaged in the bush sits a magnificent cat, a three-year-old male. We wait, until suddenly, in a cloud of dust and awful squealing, the bush erupts. Thundering out of a hole in the top of the mound crashes a baby warthog, pursued ruthlessly by our leopard. In the twinkling of an eye, the leopard sinks its claws into its prey.

But in that same instant and in desperate chase, emerges the baby pig’s entire family. Small, ugly but incredibly determined, they attack the leopard from behind and save their brother. The leopard retreats to reflect and learn from his mistake (adult leopards know not to attack warthogs). The insight in this rare sighting is to witness nature’s underdogs redressing the balance and doing it through family cooperation.

The creative services industry today resembles the record industry of the early 1970s. Both claim to be about talent, but, like the record industry then, ours is dominated by five big, bureaucratic corporations more interested in financial engineering than quality.

From our own experience and from anecdotal evidence from other entrepreneurs in our sector, I suspect that for an increasing number of clients big is no longer beautiful nor best. Recently, I read a profile of Paul Jarvis – a one-man brand consultant who has been successful in beating off the Big Five to some juicy business.

Well done, that man. But while Jarvis’ scavenging may yield enough to meet his own needs, it’s doubtful if the triumphs of one wily hyena (sorry, Jarvis) will greatly upset the order of the ecosystem.

However, if we’re interested, the chance to upset the order does exist. We call ourselves creative. In craft maybe, but where is our collective creative vision? In reality, we’re a myopic gaggle of disparate individual specimens. We’re like innocent impala waiting for the summons to lion’s supper table. It’s great to be the best at kerning, copywriting or product development, but to survive as a species we also need to marshal our creative forces strategically. We need to do what Richard Branson and Chris Blackwell did, for example, to reinvent the recording industry – upset it. We need to think warthog, not leopard.

Creative services entrepreneurs value independence and autonomy. Our egos are bolstered by creating brands in our own names. But the world is changing and unless we’re satisfied to diet on scraps left by our larger foes, we must change too. So, if there’s any truth in attack being the best form of defence, let this piece stand as our call to collective arms.

If you are the owner/ manager or leader of an independent creative services firm; if you’re proud of your passion for creativity; if you’re intolerant of mediocrity; if you’re fed up of expending most of your energies in the fight for survival; or if you’re stable and profitable but wonder where the next push for growth is going to come from, Michael Wolff and I would like to share an idea with you.

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