The Media Agency Dilemma

Media agencies seem to be suffering from something of an identity crisis these days. What are they really for? On the one hand they promote themselves as guardians of the brand, of innovators in research and data analytics, as creators of stand-out communication plans.

And on the other they compromise the thinking bit by throwing their media muscle around with gay abandon. They terrorise media owners by threatening to pull their budgets (I always thought they were clients’ budgets, but no matter), they compromise their objectivity by sitting on suppliers’  Boards, they broker digital ad space to the obvious dismay of their larger, more sophisticated clients.

I have seen more agency research initiatives come and go than you can shake a stick at. All are launched with a roll of drums (or the presence of Sir Martin Sorrell – surely a roll of drums in human form); no doubt all feature on the agencies’ websites and in all pitches for a year or two. All then seem to disappear. If the publicity these things generate brings in one new account then the investment has been worthwhile.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Media agencies were when they started fundamentally buying shops. Unlike the full-service agencies from which they emerged, they focussed solely on media, they cut the costs spent by the old full-service agencies on such fripperies as smart offices to the bone, and as a result they were able to charge low levels of commission. The result was that they undeniably delivered value to their clients.

Then they came across a great truth – there is always a guy down the street who will do the job for less. The agencies had to add something not available to the guy down the street – and the ‘something’ was planning based on proprietary research.

I suspect that certainly in those days the agencies were really far happier buying; planning was something they had to do, something that differentiated them, something for pitches, something that helped to justify the buy, something that made press headlines, something ephemeral.

Yes the agency heads, many of whom are planners by background made (and continue to make) the right noises in public and on platforms – but sadly far too many clients still seem to see them as media buying shops, and look elsewhere for strategic advice on their communication plans. Despite the millions spent by media agencies on proprietary tools and research

The future for the agencies has to be in planning; if they’re to step off the merry-go-round of ever lower prices and ever lower fees they need to persuade their clients of the benefits delivered by all the smart stuff they do.

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