As regular readers of the Cog Blog will know, I have been in this business rather a long time. But even I struggle to remember a time when the needs and desires of advertisers on the one hand, and the evolution and development of the media agency business on the other have been so at odds with one another.
It’s easy (and boring) for those of my vintage to go on about the good bits of the full-service agency model. It’s true that there were many bad bits too, but there was at least the potential for teamwork between disciplines. Furthermore the whole agency felt a common sense of ownership over the final output, the ads.
In those days any client dissatisfaction was focused on the agency’s professionalism and output. Was the work any good? Did it deliver results? If not, change the team or change the agency. Money was much less of an issue -- this wasn’t that long after an era in which every agency charged the same, 15% commission.
Nowadays client dissatisfaction is far too often rooted in something far more fundamental -- a lack of trust. Agencies (and in particular the media agencies and their trading offshoots) aren’t trusted. That is a lot more serious than failing to deliver the optimum media plan.
The advertising industry has evolved to a point where it supports an excess of specialists. As the comedian Kenneth Williams once put it: “Everyone is a specialist in less and less.” “Specialisms” have brought benefits for sure, although maybe we now have too many, all specializing in less and less. Whichever way you cut it though, the media people of today are far more numerate, more professional, have more tools and resources at their disposal and are simply more influential in the whole marketing process than the media people from the full-service agency era.
But there’s a downside to all this “specialism” -- and that is to be found in the difficulty in delivering integrated thinking, planning and execution.
There’s an irony in the fact that at just the moment that advertisers need “intergrationists” to help them maintain a consistency and focus across the mass of channels and communication techniques out there, these skills are in such short supply that the whole topic lands up in the too difficult box.
Worse, the huge holding companies that dominate the marketing services business today have focused everyone working for them on short-term monetary performance. This in turn has led to ever more creative ways of making money (step forward the media agencies and their trading operations) and to the related practice of land-grabbing.
Hiring a few people with the right sort of CV leads agencies to make the case for expanding their footprint by taking on more work (and a higher fee) from an existing client. After all it is far more efficient to grow existing business than to win new business.
However (and this may come as a shock to all those polymaths out there) the truth is that not everyone can do everything. Not every skill honed within one environment can survive being transplanted to another less sympathetic environment where the commercial focus lies elsewhere. Look at the mess Carat made when they ventured into content creation for Guinness. Carat is a fine media agency, and no doubt they understand the Guinness brand well, but if this example is anything to go by they’re just not that good at creative output.
Yes there are exceptions (I read the award papers too), but most of the time if you want a shower installed you’re better off going to a proper plumber, not to a guy whose plumbing knowledge is limited to knowing where the stop-cock is.
Despite my full-service background I do think that on balance the coming of the specialists has been a thoroughly good thing -- but we’ve overdone it. What we now need if we’re to meet our clients’ needs properly is a way of knitting together specialists to deliver integrated solutions whilst at the same time ensuring that the specialists stick to what they’re good at and don’t go wandering off doing other stuff in pursuit of a fast buck.
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 Media). He has worked in the UK, EMEA and globally out of the USA. His experience covers shifts from full-service ad agencies to media agencies; from traditional single-commercial-channel TV to multi-faceted digital channels; and from media planning to multi-disciplinary communication planning. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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