Are big media agencies serving their clients or the media owners?

Nick CleaverIn the aftermath of the revelations about media agency practices 303Lowe CEO Nick Cleaver questions whether big media agencies have forgotten what business they’re in?

The recent exposure of murky practices and less than savoury activities within media agencies has raised a lot of questions about the legitimacy and responsibility of media agency practices.

However there is a bigger question worth posing: have some big media agencies simply forgotten what business they’re really in?

If we “follow the money”, are media agencies actually hostage to media credits and concealed margins? Are their most important clients, as in the ones that remunerate them most generously, the media publishers and not their advertising clients?

Media agencies are certainly the major clients of the media publishers; after all aren’t they still, as they were always intended, “agents of the media”?

It’s a far more efficient and effective world for media publishers to be dealing with a few big media agencies rather than hundreds of individual clients. Over and above this, the media agency actually guarantees the media debt as well as potentially committing to percentage shares of consolidated future spend. You can’t blame them for offering attractive incentives to get bigger slices of the action.

And for media agencies, are the big media publishers actually better business partners than the multitude of advertising clients with whom they deal? Maybe it’s more exciting to cut multi-million dollar deals than to think hard about how to effectively take campaigns to market or haggle over the ever-smaller fees. It’s a close alignment that has drawn both partners closer together culturally. After all, there’s an incentive to build those close relationships; to entertain and socialise together. This is life at the top of the media food chain.

However things are very different at the lower end of that food chain where we find multitudes of creative agencies. If the relationship with media owners is the glamour end of media buying, then having to liaise with pesky creative agencies – with their own strategic and creative ideas and their preconceptions of where the media monies should be spent – must be the most irksome and irritating aspect of the media business.

If advertising clients are not work enough, throw into the mix the pretentious creative crowd and you really do have an incentive to work closer with your publishing chums.

Cutting content deals has also helped. These deals may be dull and pointless but throw in the potential reach and frequency, the price, repackage it as “native content” as opposed to advertorials, and “Bob’s your uncle!” The content may have little to do with the campaign strategy but it’s so much cheaper than making something with creative agencies and their production house pals!

Can we really blame media agencies for succumbing to the temptation that the very structure of our business presents? Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge that by segregating component parts of the business from one another you are just setting up disaggregated thinking and petty rivalries; and encouraging media agencies to work hand-in-hand with media owners.

Consolidating holding company media interests into mega media offerings has distanced a very important skill set (media thinking) from the creative process as well as driven media agencies into the arms of media owners.

Here’s a radical thought. If media agencies were bundled into integrated creative agencies would there be a better alignment of interests from client to agency to media owner? The result may be more smaller integrated media/creative shops and media publishers may have to deal with more agencies, but wouldn’t there be a greater focus on the work and how it engaged with people?

So, am I seriously suggesting bundled offerings are less open to shady practices?

Yes I am.

I think smaller less consolidated media budgets would remove the temptation of offering incentives for aggregated slices of the consolidated mega media shop spends. This would assure clients that their media dollars hadn’t been hoovered up into some mega television share deal and that they were operating in a more genuinely channel agnostic environment.

There are those who may feel this whole article is a case of fanciful and misguided thinking and that the status quo in ad land is all fine and dandy.

That’s fine, but there are those who are totally fed up with the whole circus, and that includes clients who will vote with their feet as they look for simpler, more efficient, integrated agency relationships.

  • Nick Cleaver is CEO of full service creative and media agency 303Lowe

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