Australian advertising is erasing its own history

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 10 May 2017
Rosie Baker AdNews editor

The news last week that Y&R Group is dropping George Patterson's initials from the name of its Australian business seemed to slip by without too much fuss, but it’s a huge signal the Australian market is well on its way to becoming dominated by global brands rather than one known for the local names and agencies that made it what it is.

It might just be two letters bolted on the front of Y&R Group’s operations to most, but it’s an integral thread to the Australian advertising industry and erasing it can'tbe undone. Just ask JWT which tried to bring back its full James Walter Thompson name to mark its 150th year. It didn't really happen and the agency will forever now be known as JWT.

There are very few big name Australian brands left anymore and that is the equivalent of the homogenisation of shopping malls and town centres being turned into cookie cutter replicas of each other and all the mainstream brands displacing family owned and local businesses. It might just be the way things are but there’s a sadness about it that I can’t shake.

George Patterson, the original agency’s founder and namesake, was way before my time. I’m talking more than half a century before, but I’m a sucker for history and legacy and I think it's important.

George Patterson was one of the founding inductees of the AdNews Hall of Fame when it launched in 2009 to honour the figures that had shaped the Australian advertising scene. In the profile feature of him included in the series, he's described as a shrewd visionary

The agency started in 1934. That's right - nineteen thirty four, 83 years ago - when Patterson demerged with his partner Norman Catts (also in the Advertising Hall of Fame).

The agency George Patterson was one of the largest in Australia and fondly called Patts. The legacy goes way back, but this is also recent history I’m talking about. Even now people who have been in the game awhile still referred to GPY&R as Patts. But now it’s gone.

Phil MacDonald, CEO of Y&R Group, insists in the statement made about the change that the George Patts name will remain part of the agencies DNA saying: "While in Australia the alignment will see the George Patterson name go from our external branding it will remain an important part of our agency’s DNA. It has played an important role in Australian advertising history and we will maintain its legacy by continuing to attract the best talent and producing the world-class work our clients have come to expect from us."

I respect and appreciate the sentiment and the intention, but it’s hard to see how it will happen in practice. How will Patts will be remembered if the name has been scrubbed out of existence?

It’s a continuation of the globalisation trend that if we’re not careful will see the Australian agency scene dominated by homogeneous global brands which while strong and respected brands, don’t have a distinctly Aussie flavour. Singo's, John Singleton's, shop has been Ogilvy for years but the last year has seen a lot of brands erased.
Last year, Publicis did away with the Mojo name after a prolonged period of lacklustre performance, and in its place opened Marcel. Match Media became Blue 449 within Publicis Media

WPP replaced the local STW Group in the merger a year ago and has been gradually merging some of its local agencies, with the pattern being that the local agency brand is superseded by the global one. DT will soon become AKQA, Designworks is becoming Landor, and the latest example is The White Agency merging with Grey to become WhiteGrey - I imagine the White brand has a limited shelf life.

And let’s not forget how TBWA unceremoniously dropped the Whybin name last year. In a move that showed a massive lack of respect for the legacy and heritage of one of its founders and namesake Scott Whybin who founded the agency 21 years before and grew it into one of Australia’s best. 

The shift away from the Whybin name wasn’t unexpected after Scott stepped away, but the way in which it was done was embarrassing - by accident thanks to a PR cock up from the agency’s PR unit while the CEO Paul Bradbury was overseas on vacation. No one internally knew what was going on or how to respond publicly, which led to conflicting statements in the media and an embarrassing balls up all round.

Correct me if I’m wrong (I may well be) but is Clemenger BBDO the only major Aussie agency that retains the name of one of Australia’s admen from the early days? I don't want to overstretch but is it just coincidence that the Melbourne office is currently slaying the competition at a global level having earned the most awards at D&AD last month and likely to do similarly well in Cannes this year?

It’s the way of the world, and independents will forever be bought up by networks and merged or integrated, often losing their identity along the way, but it is a shame that more value isn't placed on retaining a little more of where they came from.

Clemenger Melbourne is steeped in its own reputation and the legacy of its founder John Clemenger. There are many reasons Clems is firing on all cylinders, such as a legendary and stable creative direction from James McGrath and Ant Keogh, lengthy relationships with major clients, a forward looking approach, but I for one think that its unwavering standards and success owe something to its commitment to its legacy.

Its people identity with Clemenger, not just the BBDO network and that must stand for something.

There is also a generation of Australian advertising agencies that have written the next chapter. The Monkeys (which just this week was acquired by Accenture), Cummins, BMF, The Hallway and The Works are all Australian, as well as a whole raft of new agencies coming up. Let's hope they endure and are cherished by the next generation.

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