A Certain Age

I am, shall we say, of a certain age. Depending on your perspective that either means I have some experience when it comes to what works and what doesn’t, or that I am by definition out-of-touch and know nothing of the modern media world.

Probably both are true, to a greater or lesser extent.

Last week Channel 4 in the UK screened an excellent documentary called ‘Mad Women’. This took as its premise the rise of women, particularly in creative roles in what used to be male-dominated ad agencies. The programme started in the 1970’s and ran through to the present day.

Setting aside the whole point of the piece, the rise to prominence of ad women, as a by-product the programme re-established that ads could be fun. The old Ad Association finding that more people preferred the ads to the programmes was wheeled out, but regardless of that, and of the undeniable fact that there was a load of dross along with the occasional sparks of brilliance, there were some great ads.

Furthermore, campaigns did effect change. Dove’s ‘Curves’ campaign (aka ‘The Campaign for Real Beauty’) did change the way women were portrayed – at least some of the time.

There were more modern examples of women leading the conversation on display too. Maltesers for one.

And Dove has continued to set a high bar with its ‘self-esteem’ work.

I watch films like this and feel proud that the marketing industry spends on such themes, and that the ad business can still produce emotional, stirring films.

The Channel 4 film mainly featured creatives, although a good case could be made for a sister-episode on the media agency world.

Although a ‘women in media’ discussion could build a strong story around the rise of women to leadership positions in media agencies, it would struggle to make the point that there has been a parallel change in the output that the public sees.

This is obvious, consumers don’t see media plans they see ads, but there is still a point to be made, even if it’s less about the rise of women and more to do with the way media agencies are funded.

Our excessive use of social media – the communication channel where ads are most disliked and resented by those exposed to them – could be moderated by an honest assessment of the available research by the media agency world.

Agencies are there to advise clients, to offer their best, unbiased, objective advice.

Instead, they go with the flow, support the easier option. They don’t push the unpopular line, even if it’s supported by the evidence. Why else would they continue to ignore ad fraud? Why else promote social media channels who make up audience data?

Media people have drifted away from the ad business. They’ve drifted away from ads.

Look at the holding companies. Did WPP start Mindshare, or acquire The Media Business (from which emerged MediaCom) to improve the advertising? They did not.

Holding company media operations are about one thing and one thing only – money.

It’s an open secret that it’s the likes of Zenith and Starcom that keep Publicis profitable. That GroupM makes far higher margins than any other WPP opco. That OMG in effect underwrites the Omnicom creative agencies.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making money, or high margins but where I part company with my friends in the holding company media operations is that in my world you do a great job for your client, justify a high fee, and invest in your people.

For this I am called naïve – but the evidence is out there that clients will pay higher fees if they can be convinced that they achieve greater real value for money.

We are just rubbish at making that case, so we carry on charging lower fees in the sure-fire knowledge that we can make up the shortfall elsewhere.

After all, it’s a lot easier to say ‘we’ll charge you less’ than to explain that quality costs money.

Despite the hit from the transparency movement, the emergence of adtech has saved the agencies’ financial bacon and delivered a whole new area of complexity where most clients know little – including how to pay for what they get.

So the large agencies cozy up to the adtech businesses, and continue to make money from any number of sources besides and beyond the end client, whilst running the business on a mix of cheap juniors and staff ‘borrowed’ from the likes of Google.

There are exceptions amongst the independent media specialists like the7stars, Craft and December 19 but the industry ultimately is judged by the actions of the largest.

And there are pockets of excellence within the networks too. But as a wise consultant one told me – it’s all about the showgirls attracting you into the casino. The real business is done in the windowless back office away from the prying eyes of customers.

Awards, books, conference speeches aside, at its core the media agency business is not about clients and ads and is about technology, hidden deals and margin.

I find that dishonest. And sad.

But then I am ‘of a certain age’.

  1. Very much agree Brian. In my client days I would advocate to our agencies and media/sponsorship partners a “more for more” approach. I would be happy to pay more, if they found a way to get me “more”. This “more” would have to be demonstrable better outcomes in terms of reach, impact, awareness, visibility, etc. I’d happily pay fee’s for adding smarter people and systems, or higher placement cost provided it would lead to said outcomes. A few agencies got it. Many others translated it to “so if I get it to you cheaper, you will spend more?” It remains a challenge…

  2. Thanks Maarten.
    I 100% agree. We run pitches sometimes and always recommend clients do as you suggest.
    I also remember P&G in the old full-service days of 15% commission. At a time when everyone was cutting Procter always stuck on 15%. I always thought they got 20% worth of value from the agency as a result of this policy.

  3. You may be of a certain age but you have not lost your cutting edge Brian. Cutting media out of the heart of the full service creative agency was just plain wrong. Media we need yer, but just down the corridor please.

  4. Thanks Goff, and I strongly suspect that when the history books are written you’ll be proved right.
    Wrong – and the result of poor management.

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