How do you make your agency better? It’s the strategy, stupid

Nick Kavanagh, Chief Strategy Officer, iProspect, has heard many people say that they wish their media agency was "better". But what exactly does that mean? Kavanagh asked around and got some answers.

“…I just wish my media agency was better.”

We moved into a new place over the Christmas break (remember that thing?) so had quite a few friends pass through. One of which, a close friend who happens to be a head of marketing, casually dropped this into the conversation.

I didn’t ping them on it at the time – I think Ouzo was involved – but the comment stuck with me.

I’ve spoken to them about it since though. In detail. And because what they said to me was so compelling, I also spoke to a heap of other client friends to see whether they agreed. And if they did, how did they think their media agency could be better? These are marketers at leading organisations, working with both independent and networked agencies. Some of them very senior. Most have worked agency-side. And to a person, they pretty much all said the same thing.

  1. Yes, they agreed
  2. The area of most concern was strategy

I wasn’t sure if this consistency was a coincidence or because they were talking to a strategist (me) and taking the piss, so I spoke to James Ledger at The Client Relationship Consultancy who runs The Referral Rating (TRR) to see whether this trend was reflected in their data. And do you know the number one reason for client dissatisfaction with media agencies?

Yup, you guessed it – strategy.

meeting team collaboration office teamwork

Based on category-level TRR data, strategy – and quality thereof – was the top media agency complaint by key client contacts in 2023.

So, what did my client friends say exactly? What is the perceived issue with strategic delivery within media agencies?

  1. Rather than a structured directive of how media will be used to answer the business challenge, media strategies have become an articulation of the comms task.
  2. Media innovation has become platform specific rather than at a campaign level. Where are the fully integrated media ideas?
  3. Humanise your strategies and media thinking better. Cut the crap, tone down the amount of data and please, tell a better story.
  4. Comms architectures are generally reflective of the same comms tasks – that’s not strategy, that’s planning
  5. Get better at collaborating and lean into the process more – even if it means shouldering your way in. The best media work always activates a great ad agency idea
  6. Stop being so deferential to the advertising agencies. It’s become media’s default position. Rather than developing a more strategic relationship, they revert to the spots and dots
  7. Strategists need to be the guardian of the strategy. They can’t just move on to the next Things get lost along the way and efficiencies start to dominate proceedings
  8. Understand my business better. Understand the role you play. Understand where you can really bring value

Now some of this I agree with, other parts I think are unfair.

My own strategic philosophy was shaped at the Naked of Wilkins, Wilson and Ferrier in the late 2000’s. I worked with exemplary communications strategists who focused on solutions that answered the business problem, and who understood that their role wasn’t to plan media but provide marketing advice and innovative brand guidance. People who could set a clear and effective strategic direction and demonstrate the role of media – and its relationship to the creative – in answering the problem.

What I see is strategy that has become too executional. Strategy and media planning have become conflated to such an extent that we’re at risk of becoming a transactional supplier rather than strategic partner.

We’re losing the art of setting a strategic media direction and that’s on us.

I also agree with the story telling part.

We need to look at how our advertising agency cousins deliver their work to clients and replicate it; simpler, more human, more story driven.

But we also need to have a conversation about resourcing, remuneration and process.

Nick Kavanagh

I know a lot of media agency strategists, and I can confidently say they’d all love to be doing the things mentioned above. But great, integrated ideas that shape culture rather than interrupting it takes deep-thinking and collaboration with partners.

And what is the one thing that both these things require? Time.

Yet we’re constantly being pulled into things that aren’t the responsibility of the strategist, or strategy FTE’s are so low that by the time the strategy is written and presented we have to move on to the next brief in order to maintain profitability.

I also refute the comment about understanding their business. We’d love to know more about your business, but it’s hard enough getting category share figures or sales data. If you want us to know your business better – to get a clearer understanding of how and where we can add the greatest value – this is on the client. Induct us properly on the commercials, share more of your data and introduce us to key people outside of the marketing team.

If strategy is indeed the vehicle by which media agencies can be better, it requires both agencies and clients alike to protect it, nurture it, and give it the space and time it deserves.

Perhaps we all need to be better.


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