Success in Media Agencies

Re-reading old Cog Blogs I’m struck by how often I criticise agencies. To be fair, the behaviour of many of the largest over the years has not made that particularly hard to do, but it’s no bad thing to balance shouting with an offer of pragmatic advice.

Some years ago, I was on a conference panel alongside other agency people. We were asked whether we would encourage our children to make a career in media agencies.

Setting aside the fact that my children are grown up, have their own careers and wouldn’t have paid attention to me anyway, I was the only one on the panel to say yes I would.

At their best agencies are great places to work; full of interesting people with (to (mis)quote a famous adman) permission to interfere in others’ businesses without having to take all that much responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Yes, OK people have bad audits, people lose accounts, but it’s hardly on a par with having to close a plant, is it?

The sheer range of marketing activities required by clients and thus regularly offered up by agencies is huge.

It’s not only the number of communication channels on offer, but the opportunity to advise on how best to knit together e-Commerce, in-store, PR, experiential media forms, packaging, content creation and so on.

The more complicated things get, the more relevant it is to remember basic principles.

There are two basic rules:

  1. Be paid 100% by the client. Put the client’s interests front and centre. Do what’s best for him or her. What the media vendor wants, what the platforms decree, what will benefit your agency the most financially – these should not be your primary concern. If they are – you’re doing it wrong and eventually you’ll be found out.
  2. Whoever you are, whoever you work for you can’t do everything. It’s very easy to say yes, to claim invincibility, to pretend to be an expert in all things. The truth is, you’re not. If you think you are, you’ll be found out.

I can almost hear the howls now: ‘But clients don’t pay us properly. We have to offer new services to make ends meet’.


The best clients (and there are more of those than perhaps you might think) pay their agencies properly. If your clients aren’t amongst them then there has to be a grown-up conversation, sharing numbers and making the business case. Discuss the options. If a client wants the best people then this is what they cost; if the client doesn’t need every service, then don’t provide those that aren’t used, and don’t charge for them. Be honest, transparent.

The agency business isn’t all that complicated. Costs are c. 70% + in people and thus within your control. There’s no manufacturing, no supply chain, no raw materials. You can flex, adapt.

Granted there are holding companies but to most clients that’s an internal matter. As my dear old mum used to say: look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.

What’s wrong is to assume that you can always find ways to make the money up from somewhere, somehow. That can work for a while, indeed it worked for years, but today we all know where that ends, and it’s not pretty.

Rule two: don’t over-promise. Don’t say yes to everything.

One small example – remember when agencies suddenly became experts in measuring effect, some offered trackers, others econometrics? That worked for about 5 minutes until everyone worked out that paying the agency a fee to mark its own homework may not be smart.

Far better to accept that you’re brilliant at certain things. Others are equally brilliant at other things. Look to collaborate, to partner up.

Nobody’s great at everything, so ask yourself which is better. To offer a suboptimal service provided by people who if they really were the best would not be buried in an agency backroom somewhere, in order to make money until you get found out?

Or might it be better to partner up with someone who’s built a successful business doing whatever it is, to incorporate their work into yours and to bask in the reflected glory that comes from a job well done?

I recently interviewed Nick Emery for the series Crater Lake is doing with Mediatel.

Nick has the opportunity to build a media agency operation from scratch for You and Mr Jones. Nick made the point that now is a wonderful time to be in media, given the opportunities. I agree (as you can hear next week when Mediatel publish the video interview).

Agency leaders just need to grasp the opportunity whilst keeping to basic principles. ‘Just’.

  1. Am I mad? I put both my kids into media….

  2. Ha, no I don’t think so for a moment!
    I maintain my two are both in ‘media’. One writes, one casts.

  3. Julian you are mad anyway

  4. I would have no reservations about encouraging my children into a media career- although it’s now my school leaving further education grandchildren
    And for me it’s the thrill of better measurement of the effects of media activity brought about by technology. A career where the links between input and output have improved so much that makes a media career now more rewarding. My only reservation is that too many media folk are so divorced from the reality of using advertising to sell more or get higher repeat purchasing or really adding value to the clients business. I’d tell my children “Please get your heads out of the spread sheets and get better connected real time with consumers behaviours”

  5. Very good to hear from you John.
    I agree with every word!

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