Lessons from History

This post is reproduced from an article commissioned by the UK magazine ‘Media Week’

It’s a good time of the year to be an agency veteran (my official title these days) – especially if you like wallowing in nostalgia at advertising agency reunions.

For younger readers, ad agencies used to have media departments before a few visionaries decided that they were tired of being patronised by account people, and felt they were worth more than the ten-minutes-before-lunch slot in client meetings. These forward thinkers took a risk and established the first media independents, later known as media agencies. Today’s media professionals owe them a huge debt.

Back then, as media people we had a clear idea of where we fitted within the overall advertising process. Our job was to put ads in front of the right people, in the right context, at the right time and at the right price. To do this properly we had to have some idea of what the advertising looked like; there were many instances of media people working closely with creative teams, bringing together the idea and its eventual appearance. Teamwork, it was generally agreed was a good thing; it was valuable for all sides to be involved in, and to feel some ownership of the advertising.

Although ad agency media people were good at many things, we were it must be said not so good at communicating the real value that we brought to our clients. Far too often we fell back on the discounts we had managed to achieve. Beyond the simple matter of money off, we had our own language, full of jargon, pseudo-science and complicated-sounding mathematics. Clients didn’t really understand what we were talking about; we were not exactly user friendly. Hence an over-reliance on the one measure everyone understood – the price paid.

But that was all a long time ago. Media agencies these days are unrecognisable from the early media independents. They have all kinds of skills and offer all sorts of services, mirroring the complexity and measurability of many of the communication channels at their disposal. And yet one thing hasn’t changed much. As Omnicom’s Colin Gottlieb pointed out at the Media360 conference a few months ago the primary metric used by clients is still money off.

One reason for this lack of progress is a failure on our part to have learned sufficiently from the mistakes of the past. If you want to sell something complicated to someone not interested in the inner workings, simplify it so that it fits into the language and the world of those buying it.

I appreciate that today’s digital media world is far removed from those days in full-service agencies but the fundamentals are not so different: media is still about making sure the most appropriate group of people is exposed to the most relevant message in the most effective context, and monitoring and evaluating the results so that each campaign learns from past efforts.

Clients don’t have the time or the inclination to deal with complex structures consisting of silo-ed groups of specialists, or with impenetrable jargon.

The managers of the old full-service advertising agencies made a mistake in failing to recognise the likely consequences of not engaging with their media departments, leading eventually to the establishment of today’s media agency sector. It would be ironic if the successors of those early media independents make a similar mistake when it comes to communicating the value that they bring to their clients.

1 Comment
  1. The old grey matter must be in quite good nick. This is how I remember it too! Good Xmas ‘n all!

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