One of the questions that struck me at Mediatel's recent event on planning was this: Why have so many planners have left agencies over the last few years?
The panels at Mediatel's conference included Liz Workman (ex-Leo Burnett and OMD) and Marie Oldham (ex-Havas) -- both highly respected practitioners, neither still in agencies. Questions from the floor came from several ex-agency planners who now work for broadcasters or other media owners.
To level things up a bit there was Dan Hagen, Chief Strategy Officer at Carat who is still very much in post.
There is little doubt that media agency planners feel they are under great strain. A common refrain is, "I didn't sign up for this."
Planners join media agencies for any number of reasons, of course, but certainly a major attraction is being able to work alongside creative people (or creative-thinking people) in order to make a real difference to their clients' businesses.
When Jon Mandel, ex-Grey and Mediacom made his incendiary speech at the ANA Media Leadership Conference last March, reporters naturally picked up on the issue of agency kick-backs and rebates not being returned to clients. This in due course led to the current ANA investigation featuring K2 and Ebiquity's Firm Decisions.
But what was less well-reported were Mandel's remarks on the effect that this alleged practice has had on plans. To quote him directly: "They recommend or implement media that is off strategy or off target if it works for their financial gain."
This is a hard claim to quantify; certainly a lot harder than even the complex task of following any money trail, simply because any attempt to do so needs planners to speak out with real examples. As most would rather like to keep their jobs, that's asking a lot.
It's also a grey area. Planning is ultimately about applying judgement to facts and data. Judgement isn't black and white, right and wrong. One planner might be convinced that a certain course of action is the best available; another may take a different tack. Proving one option "right" and another "wrong" is not possible.
Mandel did interview a number of planners as part of his work for the ANA Media Transparency Task Force, and based parts of his speech on what they had to say, but the people concerned were speaking under a guarantee of anonymity.
His conclusions do have the ring of truth.
If you spend any time at all speaking with agency planners -- and I'm not talking about senior executives who have their own agendas -- many will quote examples where the trade has dictated the plan and not the other way around.
Many reference the lack of training, the failure of agencies to invest in the most appropriate technology designed to help them (as opposed to their trading counterparts), the lack of exposure to media owners (one agency went so far as to ban their planners from meeting media vendors on the basis that they didn't have time for such perceived fripperies), and so on.
Add all of these things together and you start to understand why there is a suggestion that planning has in the question posed at the Mediatel event "lost its mojo."
As the ANA investigation grinds its way to a conclusion it leaves in its wake a client community that to a worryingly large extent doesn't trust its media agencies. The way to regain that faith is for agencies to focus on a planning-led approach, putting the client first and having the trades follow the plans.
I do think this can happen, and I think there are already signs that it will. We'll see if I'm right.
Image at top courtesy of Corbis. The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet, Inc. management or associated bloggers.