The Future – You Can Lead a Horse to Water..

When the final blog in the series on the future of media agencies appeared last week, one agency CEO took the trouble to call me to discuss its content. As what he had to say was very sensible I thought I would extend this series to one more blog. For reasons that will soon become clear the CEO wishes to remain anonymous.

His point could be summed up as ‘what about the role played by the client’? He didn’t want to be over-critical whilst making the point that if the agencies are to fulfil their potential then there does need to be a sea-change in attitude amongst those buying their services. Clients need to engage far more than they do at the moment with the whole topic of ‘media’ – and by ‘whole topic’ we don’t mean limiting any conversation to the price and discount levels achieved.

Many years ago I was responsible for my then agency’s output on a large automobile account. I was lucky enough to have a great client – who had a responsibility for his company’s media activities across Central and Eastern Europe. He was always pushing us, always challenging us to think differently. He also promoted us inside his organisation; the budgets we were working with were large by anyone’s standards – quite aside from the budgets handled by others.

I was invited to speak to a senior client group about why what we did mattered. I started by asking them to explain the internal protocols they went through before signing off on a new plant. Naturally they were extensive. Yet they signed off an equivalent amount of money every year on media advertising, with very little investigation into how the money was to be spent, beyond the discounts to be achieved.

To extend this analogy, what if someone had come up with a technological breakthrough that would have improved productivity at the various plants? You can bet the company’s senior executives would have wanted to know all about it.

Media agencies’ planning (I use the word broadly) resources offer a competitive edge to those clients using them – a competitive edge that is far more likely to produce measurable business results than simply doing more of the same at a cheaper price.

So why don’t more clients engage more with their media agencies? It’s a complicated and multi-dimensional issue (I sense a new Cog Blog), but in no particular order:

  • Even the top marketing jobs in many organisations are below board level. If the boss doesn’t understand the issues, and his or her bosses don’t care then why rock the boat?
  • The churn within marketing roles is so high as to discourage risk-taking.
  • If everyone believes that media is all about price (see the many ill-informed comments on that aspect of the planned Publicis Omnicom merger), then surely it must be.

My friendly CEO and I agree that things do need to change, and I take his point that agencies can’t force change without their clients. But I would contend it’s up to the agencies’ (and their holding companies’) top managements to convince the most senior clients that it’s worthwhile putting the agencies’ expertise and thinking to work. This isn’t going to happen overnight but on the basis that you need to start somewhere surely it’s worth starting the conversation, setting up a trial or two and collecting learning.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson probably never said: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”. As long as you show them where the door is, and why the mousetrap is better, that is.


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