There's an anecdote about the great Irish footballer George Best. He was lounging in a hotel bedroom with the then current Miss World waiting for room service. The waiter arrived with the ordered champagne. Entering the room and seeing two naked figures, at least one of whom he recognized, he is said to have shaken his head and sighed, "Oh George, where did it all go wrong?"
Back in the day, media people in full-service agencies suffered from a lack of understanding and recognition. Entrusted with spending huge chunks of budget they (we) not unnaturally felt that the focus on creative above all else was at best imbalanced and at worst irresponsible.
If only the media people were in charge …
Well, we got our way. The rise of the media agencies, the obsession with lowering media costs, the profits swollen by grey income and the appearance of a media form understood by the few and yet lauded by the many has got us to where we are now. And where we are is really not all that great.
So where did it all go wrong?
Holding companies became their media agencies' clients. Real clients became the means to an end, not the end in itself. The end was delivering profit to the holding companies and as long as clients didn't ask (most of them didn't) where their money was being spent, that was as easy as shelling peas.
Now we have to live with the consequences -- of which there are several.
First, clients are wising up courtesy of the ANA, the WFA, Jon Mandel, Ebiquity, IDComms, K2 and others.
Second, the pathetic reaction of some of the network agencies that this whole thing is a conspiracy made up by people who really don't understand "the real world" is about to vanish if the Campaign scoop of a few weeks ago that the FBI is now involved turns out to be true.
Third, an alternative has appeared in the form of the management consultancies (we may as well use the plural, as Accenture is not going to be alone for long). The agencies over-hyped data capabilities are now under threat from people who genuinely have these capabilities -- and in spades.
Fourth, increasing numbers of advertisers are taking elements of the media role in-house, preferring not to hand their data over to a supplier who may well turn out not to be a long-term partner.
Those who focused on rebates over clients' needs brought the industry to the brink of disaster.
As with everything, step one is to recognize the problem. Just as the big network agencies caused this mess, so can they bring the sector's reputation back from the brink. Stephen Allen's Campaign piece is a good start in recognizing that the breakdown of trust caused in large part by the whole transparency debate is forcing change within agencies.
Pulling back from the brink is quite possible if the media agencies put their undoubted skills to work to benefit their clients ahead of everything else.
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