Media Entrepreneurs

Not so many years ago, around 2005/2010 (yesterday in my terms; just after the ice age to some) the media agency world was pretty straightforward. If we set aside the specialists – those who do a great B2B job, or who run an agency handling local advertisers – pretty well the only game in town for large advertisers was that delivered by the large holding companies.

If you were working for huge brands the choice really came down to which holding company you, or rather your Board favoured.

Back then most found it hard to tell their Zenith from their Mindshare, their OMD from their Carat. Take the logo off the new business pitch slides and you honestly couldn’t tell one from the other.

Yes there were a few independents – the7stars were one of the first, emerging as a breakaway from Carat with the then-startling idea that transparency in dealings was a good thing, but for many they really weren’t an alternative to the big guys. Back then they were a real challenger brand, appealing to certain types of advertiser.

Total Media, started by another big agency guy, Mike Sell had been around for many years by 2010 – but Mike’s original proposition was a little different. He brought big agency experience to bear on small accounts. I know that’s different now – but back then Mike found a niche, exploited it brilliantly and built upon it.

Those that came after Total saw their ambition as providing an alternative for the large clients; maybe domestic over international but certainly large over small.

To build a career then you spent time at one of the big agencies. And they were, well, big.

I recall an interview with someone who was joining one of the Omnicom media agencies. He was asked about the appeal of Omnicom over, say WPP or Publicis. ‘You get the opportunity to be truly entrepreneurial’ he said. I remember thinking: you’re working for one of the two largest marketing services groups in the world. They didn’t get there by allowing people to behave in a truly entrepreneurial fashion. If you really want to be entrepreneurial then go off and do it for yourself.

And that’s what’s happened over time. Look at the talent who have chosen to leave the large companies to build their own businesses.

I’ve mentioned the7stars founded by Carat luminaries Jenny Biggam, Mark Jarvis, Colin Mills and Gareth Jones. Nowadays they’re rather the ‘grande dame’ of the indie world. They pioneered; and were joined by now-established players like Goodstuff and December19, although Goodstuff has now met itself coming back, selling to a new breed of holding company in Stagwell.

There are those who’ve made their name in the holding companies, like Danny Donovan ex IPG and WPP, taking the leap and backing himself launching his own business, Build Media. The interesting thing about Danny compared with, say Andrew Stephens and Ben Hayes at Goodstuff or the7stars’ guys is that he is, not to get too personal a tad more mature.

Yet Danny sees an opportunity in a new breed of media agency and is out to exploit it. I know Danny (he’ll be commenting on this before it hits the newsstands), and I have little doubt that he’ll succeed. It will be fun watching him.

Much the same could be said of Pedro Avery, ex Havas now making waves with Henry Dalglish and Graeme Douglas at Bicycle, and Sally Weavers and team at Craft.

These opportunities have come about for a number of reasons. There are many more media channels than there used to be, which impacts and automates the buying task; and the modern agency has to have expertise in all sorts of commercial uses of media channels, from partnerships to experiential, from influencers to extensions designed to build customer experiences.

Consequently, planning is finally coming into its own. How different from the days when you had to be big to get the deals which the plans were then massaged to fit; when every agency was judged against some auditor’s crass average; when advertisers were encouraged to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Now skilful media thinking is coming into its own. No more ‘bish-bosh look at my deal’, now it’s about using commercial channels to enhance your client’s brand, about lateral and creative thinking, about data and analytics, about true accountability not some score against a pool.

I think it’s great – more power to the new breed of entrepreneurs’ elbows.

  1. And of course M.i. Media, the all-media performance specialist, borne out of MediaCom. They’ve quietly been doing very well working with clients looking to generate more revenue from their advertising!

  2. Indeed Clive! An inadvertent omission!

  3. Seems a bit of a superficial analysis? There was a vibrant entrepreneurial independent agency culture from (at least)1990. Planning wasn’t just deal driven and a recently discovered phenomena, many indies started purely to deliver this – PHD, then Michaelides & Bednash, Naked etc, etc. There was a lot of great and innovative work being produced by independent agencies. We won three IPA effectiveness awards for one paper in 2002, hardly deal driven planning!!!!

  4. Hi Charlie – great to hear from you and thanks for the comment.
    I never claimed this to be anything other than a blog post, it’s certainly not an extensive analysis or history of the sector!
    That said I know that there were great indies around then, but my point is that many weren’t really seen as challenging the big guys. They, and indeed you were doing very good work but were seen by the giants as a bit niche, not big enough to be a threat, and anyway the big agencies always fell back on ‘but we can buy cheaper’ line of defense.
    What’s changed is that the ‘we can buy cheaper’ claim is no longer credible, partly because of the decline of the buying-led plan movement and partly because the size-alone matters argument has been pretty comprehensively devalued.
    Naked, M&B thrived because they were planning-led. As soon as the bigger guys worked that out and started talking about planning (whilst still being buying driven) Naked and M&B did less well, and where are they now (that’s rhetorical!)?
    And now the indies are most certainly seen as a threat. Good thing too!
    Stay well.

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