A New Golden Age of Independent Media Agencies?

There is an echo of the old days when media agencies were but a twinkle in a few eyes.  Back then, full-service agency media directors left their comfortable, well-paid roles to set up what were then called media independents.  People like Chris Ingram (of CIA, now MEC); David Reich and Ray Kelly (TMD, later Carat), Alan Rich (The Media Business, later MediaCom) and several others all took a huge risk.

Their reasons were primarily to do with the lack of respect full-service managements had for their positions, and the fact that they weren’t as fully involved as they might have been in decisions on the agency’s direction of travel.  Within any full-service agency, media delivered the majority of revenue, while accounting for a below-average share of costs.  Media was truly “below stairs.”

This of course changed dramatically as a result of the risks taken by the people mentioned above.  Others (like Nick Manning and Colin Gottlieb, Jonathan Durden, David Pattison and Nick Horswill) formed a successful second wave, which with the agency-owned operations like Zenith led us to the dynamic sector with which we are all familiar.

The business was led by true risk-takers and entrepreneurs.  But look around today’s industry (even before the recent purge).  I wouldn’t claim to know Pippa Glucklich, Nikki Mendonca, Tracey de Groose or Paul Frampton well, although they no doubt all are strong leaders.  All sit within large organizations over which they have perhaps less influence than they would like.

All appear to be client-facing by nature; professionals who put their clients first and central.  They must find it hard to observe client trust in their organizations being eroded.  Public criticism of their agencies’ lack of transparency must grate.

The truth is that as an opco leader in one geography their ability to influence their holding companies is limited.  Their positions are analogous to the old media heads of full-service agencies:  Lacking ultimate influence over their companies’ behaviors, delivering the money to shore up other less financially successful elements of the holding group, and frustrated at not being able to do what they feel is right.

To take one example, the holding companies have as one dismissed ISBA’s media agency contract framework as “unhelpful.”  Let’s say, hypothetically, that one of Frampton, de Groose or Glucklich were in favor of working with ISBA (as well they might be, given that those responsible for the U.K. government’s media review -- in which de Groose’s Aegis is incumbent -- are planning on using the ISBA framework).

Would Havas, Dentsu Aegis, or Publicis be prepared to give ground in what some seem to think is a holy war against advertiser trade bodies?

The successors to the Ingrams and the Kellys, the Pattisons and the Durdens are to be found in the7stars, or at Goodstuff (who bought themselves out from Omnicom).  These people (Jenny Biggam, Mark Jarvis, Andrew Stephens, et al) took a risk -- a big risk when they left their previous, far larger organizations. They’re the successful ones; others have tried and failed.  It wouldn’t be much of a risk if it was easy.

I think it unlikely that Frampton, Glucklich, de Groose and others still to come will reappear in another holding company.  Aside from Nikki Mendonca, who’s going to Accenture, I suspect they’ll be more likely to give it a go on their own, or at the very least to pick an organization in which they’ll have a greater degree of autonomy.

In the 1970’s we had media independents, who reshaped the industry.  It can’t be a lot of fun in the large network agencies at the moment.  I suspect we’re about to enter a golden age of independent media agencies.

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Brian Jacobs

Brian Jacobs spent over 35 years in advertising, media and research agencies including spells at Leo Burnett (UK, EMEA, International Media Director), Carat International (Managing Director), Universal McCann (EMEA Director) and Millward Brown (EVP, Global... read more