Agencies in a Binary World

We’re living in a world that is becoming ever-more binary. Never mind that in life most things are nuanced, with light and shade, pros and cons on both sides of any argument. Today you have 140 words to express your opinion. In the echo chamber that is social media if you don’t agree with me, in my eyes you’re wrong.

And so it is in our industry too.

Media agencies are untrustworthy. Clients don’t appreciate or pay them properly. No-one watches TV or reads printed materials. Online ads don’t work.

Anyone claiming any role for established offline media forms is a dinosaur (or the Taliban according to one weekly newsletter).

Anyone suggesting that sometimes online media forms play a valuable role in a media plan is clearly driven by base motives.

All of these are less than 100% true 100% of the time.

It has been demonstrated, from the formalities of the Jon Mandel work and the subsequent ANA investigation down to anecdotes from consultants, auditors, and the personal experiences of several ex-agency people, that many media agencies have lacked transparency in their trading practices.

This does not mean that every person in every agency is in on whatever scam has been dreamt up by the people responsible for doing the deals.

At the same time it doesn’t follow that every accusation is baseless.

A few weeks ago the Cog Blog commented on the strange remarks of GroupM’s Global Chairman Irwin Gotlieb, who basically suggested that the whole Mandel/ANA thing was cooked up to enrich auditors.

A case of mis-speaking from a smart guy, I thought. No-one as talented as Irwin could really believe such a theory.

We didn’t have to wait too long for the next cab off the rank.

Nick Theakstone, who heads GroupM in the UK published a piece after a UK media awards evening at which his agency MediaCom had done remarkably well.

Nick’s ire was aimed at our version of the ANA, ISBA. Whilst it may not be advisable to attack one’s clients in the trade press, trade bodies are it seems fair game.

Several months ago ISBA issued its members with a media agency contract template designed to ensure transparency. This was largely seen as a good initiative and useful as a start-point in negotiations.

Separately, ISBA’s Head of Consulting, Debbie Morrison was quoted as saying she had a concern that media agencies no longer always act in the best interests of their clients. Debbie’s views are hardly unique, and are supported by the facts.

Nick Theakstone clearly considers this to be a major slur, his argument has been to use MediaCom’s success at an awards event (awards largely judged by their peers) as proof that ISBA was wrong.

A hatful of awards: “ (anyone) to really understand the extent to which media agencies deliver for clients”.

He’s confusing ‘media agencies’ with ‘trading organisations that sit above media agencies’.

I don’t think anyone in the great transparency debate has ever questioned the hard work and dedication of the planners, researchers and strategists (the people who work every day with clients, and who incidentally write the award entries) at MediaCom, OMD, Zenith and the rest.

The issue lies with the traders (generally in the mini-holding companies) who still insist that plans written to specific client briefs are submitted to them for approval. Meeting a share deal beats meeting client needs, in other words.

Jon Mandel’s original work was based on interviews with planners, same with much of the K2 work for the ANA. The criticisms in the conclusions drawn by the ANA and ISBA are aimed at traders.

MediaCom is a planning agency; Nick Theakstone heads an organisation that has group trades at its heart.

It’s misleading to conflate the two things.



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