Nostalgia in the World of Media Agencies (With Explanatory Notes)

It’s been a good week for fans of nostalgia (note to the digerati: that’s stuff that happened more than a week ago). First we had five old blokes on a stage at London’s O2 Arena talking about dead parrots and lumberjacks (note to the youth: that would be the Monty Python team’s last ever live show). Then we had Phil Georgiadis, Chairman of Walker Media, and Claire Beale, the fragrant and recently reinstated Editor of ‘Campaign’ coming over all misty eyed about media in the old full-service era.

Georgiadis was an excellent media planner; and is one of the few senior media guys in agencies with the courage to express his concerns over the short-term deal-driven culture that’s eating away at the objectivity of agencies. It will be fascinating to see what he can do inside a large holding company, now that he has a role at Zenith to fit in alongside his Walker Media chairmanship. His article remembers how BMW’s advertising was that perfect combination of creativity and media thinking working hand-in-glove inside the full-service agency WCRS.

Beale, who (and I should declare my wounded pride if not my interest) once wrote a particularly charmless editorial wondering why an agency like Universal McCann would hire a media dinosaur like me, has expressed amazement that not all media agencies are that familiar with the creative work they’re charged with placing. Welcome to the land of the dinosaur, Claire.

Both make a good point though. An earlier Cog Blog wondered what business the media agencies are in. As I said: “Media agencies need to restate their role, the critical one of working with creatives to ensure that people see, engage and act.”

The fact is that there is far too much focus these days on trading mechanics. It may be unfashionable, to point this out but algorithms don’t have ideas. At best they help people have ideas.

Sir Martin Sorrell has been much quoted for his comment that ‘we are in the era of the math men as opposed to the MadMen’ (a line you can bet wasn’t written by a mathematician), but I must say I much prefer his answer when asked to define the next big thing in media: ‘…using brain as well as brawn, harnessing the intellectual as well as the scale assets we have…’

The problem is a simple one. The big holding companies make increasingly large proportions of their overall margins from digital trading. Some of them have decided that they would rather their clients didn’t know quite how much money they make in this way, so they choose to hide the detail of what is being spent and where.

The big holding companies will argue that they don’t make a bean out of their media buyers spending any time at all worrying about the content of the ads they place. Or so they think.

I think they’re wrong; and I am pleased to see that my fellow dinosaur Claire Beale thinks so too. Because if ads don’t work as well as they might then clients will spend less on them. If algorithms rule, then there are plenty of ways of accessing algorithms from outside the magic circle of the holding companies.

If it turns out that all there is is some little bloke sitting behind a curtain pulling a few levers and flourishing by convincing everyone that it’s all magic (note to the cinematically challenged: that’s a Wizard of Oz reference) then the outlook for lever-pullers everywhere may not be all that rosy. That’s a discussion for another day.