Aegis and John Brown

Creating content is easy (just look at LinkedIn, or the majority of blogs). Creating content anyone except the author considers remotely interesting and worthy of being read is quite another thing.

The other day Dentsu Aegis announced it had acquired the customer magazine business John Brown. This is interesting for a number of reasons – not least because the John Brown business is it seems being positioned as a part of iProspect, the Aegis digital business.

Marketing services holding companies have bought customer publishing businesses before. Publicis owns Blueprint; WPP has owned Forward (along with a host of digital content specialists) since 2001. But what’s interesting about the new Aegis/John Brown set up is that it has emerged from a media agency, as opposed to from one of Dentsu’s creative shops.

Neither Blueprint nor Forward claim any close connection with Vivaki or GroupM. Both it seems are happy to be seen to lean towards the creative side. Both are strongly independent.

The Aegis initiative is it seems to me smart. On the one hand, Aegis doesn’t have content creation at its heart. Perhaps unusually amongst his peers, Ben Wood of iProspect has acknowledged that fact and so has looked outside for an acquisition.

Andrew Hirsch, of John Brown would I suspect admit a weakness when it comes to turning magazine content into digital form. He’s certainly not alone in this – many of the traditional customer publishing businesses have struggled when it comes to translating a physical paper format into something engaging on-screen.

Furthermore many of the brands that form the backbone of the customer publishing business are well served by paper. Think of in-flight magazines, supermarket titles crammed with cut-out-and-keep recipes and ideas as well as money-saving coupons, and car magazines that embody their owner’s brand attributes through beautiful photography and well-crafted copy.

Certainly these and others can and often do exist highly satisfactorily in a digital format – but the ‘lead medium’ is often a physical thing that is then translated into something digital.

iProspect’s businesses on the other hand are by definition digital through and through. They know better than most how to use digital channels to drive action and effect.

It’s refreshing that Aegis and John Brown have both admitted their weaknesses, which should mean that they can work well together in a way that benefits their respective clients.

Other media agencies seem to think they can do everything in-house, and that ‘all’ they need to do is buy-in the appropriate talent. If you were a feature writer wouldn’t you rather work somewhere that encourages and develops your talent for what it is, as opposed to somewhere that sees you as a churner-out of content that can be used as part of a deal to drive a lower price from a channel provider?

I would sound one note of caution. Many years back Aegis acquired a US-based marketing science business called MMA. MMA was/is US-centric; Aegis tried to extend its footprint by basing MMA-branded outposts within Carat. The body unfortunately rejected the transplant – on the basis that the Carat research teams back in those days considered themselves more than capable of delivering an equally impressive marketing science product (which they weren’t).

Something similar happened when Aegis acquired the research business that became Synovate. It failed to find synergies between the media and research businesses and finished up selling to IPSOS.

The John Brown acquisition could very well give Aegis’ media businesses a real edge, as long as the host agency values what it’s got and doesn’t try to interfere in matters where it lacks expertise and experience.

This is all about mindset, and mutual respect. If the Aegis opcos can get those right then the vision can take flight.

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