Curiosity Is A Wonderful Thing

A Cog Blog post a couple of weeks ago raised the whole issue of understanding, and a framework for ensuring we all, and especially those on the frontline, learn more from each other. Omar Oakes, Editor of The Media Leader picked the piece up and amplified it. Both the original blog and Omar’s piece generated a fair few comments and responses.

I’ve never had any truck with politicians but for once I felt a pang of sympathy. People do rush to criticise without reading the original and do comment from a position of not knowing what’s being suggested.

My start-point was and is that advertisers’ trust in media agencies is not great. Whichever means you use to measure it – by surveys or by tracking the number choosing to do their own thing in-house – there is a genuine question-mark over what value the agencies bring their clients, how they make their money, and how objective their advice is.

And anyone thinking the core transparency discussion is long past are wrong, as Nick Manning and AdAge pointed out this week.

I’ve been out of agencies a long time (best to get that in early) but I do see a lot of them via consultancy assignments and pitches.

And what I see is a sector talking to itself, doing its best to convince itself of its general wonderfulness whilst ignoring the criticisms.

Meantime the larger industry sees a group investing in vendors’ businesses, hiding and manipulating data and avoiding the key issues of the day if said issues are rather inconvenient to their bottom line (think online ad fraud).

In short, a group of market traders not a cerebral group focussed on finding the best solutions for their clients.

This is I admit harsh. There are plenty of smart people in agencies, there are also some agencies, particularly away from the heritage group of holding companies who put their clients front and centre. And away from the agencies the online ad industry in its many facets is certainly not blameless.

My premise was and is that the agencies need a reset. They’re not just media buying businesses (the descriptor most clients still use); they are in theory or could be in practice expert integrated communication planners.

To be a great planner takes a number of skills and abilities including curiosity. You need to be curious about people, why they do as they do, curious about clients’ brands and businesses, curious about the whole world of media and communications, curious to learn.

What you don’t need is a corporate deal maker insisting you put your curiosity and creativity in a box, close it, shove it under the stairs and use ‘X’ over ‘Y’ because of some over-arching commitment.

My suggestion is to establish a framework, largely using existing resources based around encouraging curiosity and learning. To giving these abilities the space to grow and flower.

This framework would consist of a number of courses, awards, conferences, and (yes) exams selected for their ability to encourage a closer relationship with the ad industry as a whole, and to encourage the flowering of an ability to think broadly and beyond the media numbers.

The plan is to go beyond specific media skills’ training. There are after all, as several people have said plenty of courses in how to use Google and Facebook, largely run by Google and Facebook.

In my fantasy world candidates would be awarded credits for participation in a number of pre-approved activities. Enter a paper in the IPA Ad Effectiveness Awards, get credits. Win an award, get more credits. Be published, get credits. Attend an approved industry conference, get credits. Speak at such an event, get more credits.

Complete an approved internal course, get credits. Pass an industry course, get more credits.

And so on.

One comment, from an agency head of planning said that nothing beats on-the-job experience. To me that’s rather arrogant – it may be that the agency doesn’t know absolutely everything about everything.

Of course, experience counts. My plan combines on-the-job experience shared via in-house sharing with learning from organisations and centres of excellence outside the agency.

Who should run such a scheme? I would favour an established, highly respected trade body active across all elements of the ad industry. My choice would be The Advertising Association, with the active support of the IPA and ISBA.

They would come together to publicise the scheme, its objectives and the importance of credits, to embed the scheme within the industry.

One way to kickstart the scheme would be to suggest to clients that they make participation and support, and eventually the awarding of credits a factor in whether agencies were included in pitches.

This is not unknown with such as D&I, Women Owned Businesses and others.

This may all sound a bit draconian but if we’re to raise the standing of media agencies, and to restore trust in the art of planning, as opposed to the science of buying we have to think differently.

To go back to the start, there’s a (quite possibly existential) reputational issue that needs addressing.

This is my attempt to address it.


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