You’ll struggle with the culture shift, Mat: The DNA of media buying is completely different to earned media

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 5.25.42 pmIn this guest post, Anthony Freedman argues that media agencies will find it harder than they think to shift into public relations territory because it requires an entirely different culture.

Like a lot of people, I noticed the coverage surrounding Mat Baxter’s reveal of UM’s new “Creative Connections Agency” positioning last week.

It started with a piece in Mumbrella provocatively headlined “Media agencies aren’t our competitors” and continued the following day after Mat was goaded into stating UM “won’t be entering media agency awards any more”.

For anyone who didn’t read the stories, the gist of it is this; UM is no longer a media agency, it’s a ‘connections company’ that is embracing earned and owned media, and thus will herein compete with the likes of R/GA, Google and (closest to my heart) One Green Bean.

Fundamental to this repositioning, is a shift in remuneration methodology, from commission to head hours in the form of a retainer.

This Mat’s posits, will remove the temptation for the agency to recommend the channels where it stands to make most money.

All very admirable, and it’s important for me to say right now, this piece is neither designed to diminish the steps that UM are taking to modernize their business, nor fire cheap shots at Mat for having the balls to put his head above the parapet and share this vision.

But I do think it’s worth considering what it takes for a company to credibly claim expertise in owned and earned media.

From my experience, it’s not really about how the company is remunerated, although I do see why Mat’s view that objectivity can be skewed when income is derived from recommending some channels over others. (I’d like to have thought that professional integrity should also play a part in the recommendations you make, but I’ve always been an idealist.)

I think it’s about the DNA of not just the agency, but moreover the category in which that agency has grown up.

Given Mat chose to refer to One Green Bean, allow me to pick up where he left off.

OGB is a company borne of public relations and what sets public relations (PR) people apart from other marketing disciplines is this; they have always had to take a message a client wishes to communicate, and find a way to position or package it such that an editor will deem it worthy of publishing.

PR people pitching stories have to earn the right for their content to appear, and have done so by telling that story in a form the audience of that media, would consider interesting, useful or entertaining.

Those skills and that type of thinking are absolutely at the core of what makes a business like One Green Bean tick.

It’s has never had the luxury of being able to buy an audience for its content and so it’s developed an innate ability to think about how to solve clients’ briefs in ways that people will choose to consume, without being forcibly exposed to them.

Now all PR companies have worked in that way, but perhaps OGB was a little quicker that some, to see how those skills were immediately transferable to the world of social media, where the aim is ‘participation’.

Likes, shares, comments, co-creation – all designed to propel content across friendship networks.

Of course we now know that to effectively achieve that outcome, requires a degree of bought media within those channels, but the sums of money are trifling in comparison to many other more established media channels.

The key point is this; we live in a world with (mostly) diminishing marketing budgets, with expectations of both agencies and marketing teams, to deliver more with less.

We also see an increasingly savvy consumer, better able to screen out those commercial messages it wishes to avoid.

And concurrently have also witnessed the proven ability for great content from brands, to find audiences far larger than the total sum of their media spend, thanks to earned (and owned) media.

Today we have a growing requirement to add all this up, remove reliance on bought media, and deliver greater reach, with less cost, by better utlising earned and owned channels.

But if your entire culture has been built around trading dollars for attention ‘served on a platter’, it’s hard to affect the cultural shift required to develop content, understanding that ‘you’ll only eat what you catch’.

Beyond a remuneration method that removes temptation, and the technical know-how to listen, optimize and so on, it also requires an inherent ability to see how the client story can be told in a way that people will want to hear it.

An eye for editorial and an ear for social context.

These things are hard to build overnight in any agency for whom this hasn’t been part of their culture.

As Mat says amongst the comments following his Mumbrella piece “All journeys have to start somewhere buddy”, and he is right.

But I think there needs to be an acceptance that UM still has some way to go before it can credibly claim the expertise to unlock earned and owned channels as proficiently as it can bought channels – something that has been in its DNA right back to its inception.

Anthony Freedman is Founder and Group CEO of Host and One Green Bean 


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