In the first blog in this series on what the future might look like for the media agency we focussed on the difference between the public face of the agency (based on a deep and often profound understanding of consumers and their relationship with communication channels) and the more private reality, based around supplementing their meagre earnings through unofficial kick-backs and payments in kind from media owners.
The unpalatable fact is that whenever surveys of client attitudes are conducted, media agencies are neither trusted, nor particularly well-regarded by their customers. They are still referred to as 'media buyers', they still speak in strange tongues (especially if they are a digital whiz kid, whose terms of employment demand that they frequently use words no-one else in the room understands), and the benefits they bring to their clients are all too often described (by commentators and even some of these clients) as being largely about price. Look at how the less well-informed noise around the planned Publicis Omnicom merger focussed on buying muscle.
Many have argued that digital channels and access to data changes everything, and up to a point they're correct. The ability to analyse large tranches of data improves the important business of tying business results and media activities together; marry that with the opportunity for a far greater degree of accountability than ever before and the result must be a good thing.
Media agencies and their owners were indeed quick to embrace the digital and data world(s), through acquisitions, new talent, and internal structures. But once again the story has mushroomed out of control, with the suspicion that on too many occasions the agencies have simply used the growing complexity surrounding digital matters to feather their own nests through such practices (long abhorred, ironically by many of them in traditional media) as broking. The opportunity to become known for smart uses of digital, or brilliant data analytics might not have vanished but it's a lot harder when the backdrop to any such story is all around what is seen as dodgy behaviour.
Even in today's digital world the same basic rules still apply. Planners still plan campaigns to reach a defined target with a defined purpose in mind. Research is still used to help planners plan, and to learn from results. Data analytics is an aid to planning, learning what works helps you do more of it.
The problem for the media agencies is that they have made the planning bit hard to understand and to interact with. It's all presented as being a bit mysterious, a bit scientific, a bit over-engineered. Organisations have become too silo-ed, with specialists too separated from generalists (separate businesses, generally in separate buildings does not aid team-work). Planning (the bit closest to the client's business) is often undervalued and rather overlooked within a process that focusses far more on the easy-to-understand bit, the prices, discount levels and kick-backs achieved.
50% off the wrong thing does not make it the right thing. The plan's the thing, not the buy. For media agencies to move up the value chain they have to become better known and better regarded for their planning skills as opposed to for their buying muscle. They need to change the agenda, away from brawn alone to brains driving brawn.
In the next and final blog in this series we will propose a new structure for the media agency, one that more properly recognises the values they bring to their clients.
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), UniversalMcCann (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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