Something Lost Along The Way

I come from a generation that grew up professionally in full-service ad agencies – where everything, including creative, planning, media, even in some cases packaging and market research was all done under the one ad agency roof orchestrated by account people.

I mention this as the concept of integration of media with creative is hardly new. It’s where we started.

Back then, ad agency Media Directors argued for greater recognition within the agency, and when that didn’t happen several entrepreneurial characters took their ball away and started what were then called media independents.

The premise back then was simple. We only do media; we’re more invested in the subject and thus we do it better. Furthermore, we don’t waste money on agency fripperies and so we’ll deliver great value for money via better prices and lower fees.

Somewhere along the way from then to now we’ve mislaid something. The desire to do great work for clients.

Yes, I’ve read the award entries, but the day-to-day and the award entries rarely align.

It’s no doubt annoying when cynical old gits like me start sentences with the words: ‘In my day…’. So, I apologise to those easily annoyed for what follows.

In my day the client was front and centre. You did great work; you won more business. You won more business; you made more money. You made more money; you hired more and better people. And the world continued to turn.

I have a memory of making a speech like this to a group of my fellow Media Directors and assorted agency luminaries at a Media Circle event in the Channel Islands and being accused by one of my peers of extreme naivety. It was naïve of me to expect to get out of there alive, that’s for sure.

As I was told in no uncertain terms, clients wanted to pay less, we in agencies needed to make our crust from someone else, and the only option left was deals done with the media owner.

Why not, I asked, make the case to clients for better work and better outcomes being better rewarded? Too hard. Far easier to do media deals and keep the benefits.

No-one talked about it, no-one cared.

Until they did. We all know what happened next, with Jon Mandel, the rush to transparency, the agency sector’s failure to regain client trust, all leading to the mess we’re now in.

This is hardly news. Today the arguments raise eyebrows if not remedial actions.

What is mind-numbingly stupid is the largest agencies are making the exact same mistake again.

This time they’re assuming that no-one cares which ad tech they’re using, which firm they’re cosying up to, what ‘benefits’ they’ve negotiated for themselves, in the same way that they assumed no-one understood enough about ‘media’ to spot agency volume deals.

Only this time it’s worse as there are holding companies’ skirts to hide behind, there’s much talk of ‘privacy issues’, ‘regulatory authorities’, ‘legal niceties’.

Obviously, such things are important but the way these phrases are bandied around is outrageous.

The hope is that clients will lose interest and turn to something else.

But they won’t. These days there are enough well-informed people invested in doing media better. Questions will continue to be asked. Unless the major agencies stop the introspection they’ll eventually self-destruct.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

Clients need agencies more than ever – the world is too complicated not to need specialists.

At a time when it’s easier than ever to get it wrong, they also need agencies to do their best work.

The media agencies have quite enough talented people to do the best for their clients without these people having to spend a second worrying about their holding companies’ demands for ever-higher margins to shore up less successful sibling opcos.

The agencies have lost something along the way; the single-minded focus on doing the best for their clients. And yes they need to demonstrate their value every day to create a world within which they’ll be fairly rewarded.

It was a simple business until it wasn’t and until a few people decided to make money out of complexity.

Something’s been lost, but it’s still out there. Let’s hope we find it before too long.

  1. Always wise words Brian.

  2. Thanks Mike! Appreciate it. B

  3. Sad but true I’m afraid Brian! A thirty year race to the bottom and it still goes on!!

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