Opinion

Media agencies have become commoditised shades of vanilla

If media agencies don't change their way of thinking, fast, they could all be surplus to requirements in as little as five years, writes Martyn Thomas.

Advertising is a fabulous industry, often derided and misunderstood by those not involved, but certainly preferable to getting a proper job.

Within the advertising industry are those of us in media, a part of the industry that needs a good hard look at itself. There is a line of thought that says if we just keep doing what we currently do, we’ll all be surplus to requirements in five years.

Marketers have worked out/are working out that media agencies are their commoditised bitches and treat them accordingly. As independent media agencies become increasingly absorbed by the major holding groups, this leaves marketers the choice between five networks and – as someone put it – 17 shades of vanilla.

The big five networks are akin to massive container ships lined up in the Suez Canal: slow to move and difficult to change direction with a vested interest in delivering their cargoes of airtime and precious programmatic inventory.

We must go beyond mere channel planning and generate ideas that connect people and brands. In doing so we bring creative thinking to centre stage – that is, strategic creative communications thinking coupled with the actual creative manifestation. A “flow” if you will, rather than a multi-agency linear process.

In this connected era, brands have lost control of the carefully stage-managed unveiling of their story and consumers have realised that advertising has been taking their time and money (usually both) for years. The opportunity now is to go beyond preying on their time and to give, not take.

The challenge is to identify those communication activities that create enough value for the consumer to inspire the behaviours we seek.

This could include the likes of good old-fashioned advertising, creating social currency, providing utility, offering opportunities to rally around a cause or to connect with people that matter.

A recent UK Media2020:Refresh research study surveyed over 250 senior marketers responsible for over £5 billion in advertising investment. It kicked up a handful of interesting findings from a client’s perspective as brands restructure too.

Technology and data are changing the media ecosystem as brands reorganise to become more data-driven and customer-centric. Agility and flexibility are the words du jour in the strive for contextual creative delivery which flies in the face of the slower, more linear, multiple agency partnership option.

Recently, you may have noticed that Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard has announced shaking up the agency model and putting the focus back on creativity.

Coupled with this we have the issues of programmatic transparency, brand safety and effective measurement.

Transparency is regarded as fixable. Brand safety, regarded as more systemic, is the biggest cause for client insomnia and in the face of a fragmented and siloed measurement industry we can expect brand-specific media KPIs will become the barometers of accountability rather than industry benchmarks.

The magnetism of digital is waning as similar levels of spend are now allocated between brand-building in traditional media and conversion-driving digital media. The honeymoon between brands and the large technology platforms is over.

Clients have learnt that audiences are easy to find, but attention is not. Programmatic may be very efficient for targeting purposes, but targeting alone is only one-half of the equation and is no guarantee of marketing effectiveness. In a quest for more creative focus, Pritchard goes on to say: “We relinquished too much control. We were dazzled by the shiny objects and big data overwhelmed us. We ceded a lot of power to algorithms. Now we’re saying no.”

These drivers of change should be a cause for concern not only for media agencies, but also what I’ll call traditional creative agencies.

Alternatively, as someone who ran an independent media agency for 18 years and has recently been absorbed by another independent, the nimble fragrance of opportunity is in the air.

It’s been a few years since Naked came to these shores, but what they did well was to raise the profile of media thinking beyond channel planning and kilos of target audience rating points. They also brought creative and media agencies together and raised the profile of creative media thinking with the CMO and CEOs.

We’re all aiming for the same place from different starting points and it seems clear that the opportunity is to remove the ‘complexity’ of agencies to provide the necessary disciplines sitting as equal partners in a much more fluid structure.

We are now in the business of providing a customer experience. The quicker our industry orientates itself around that central theme, the quicker we’re going to mirror the type of value that our clients so desperately need, as they themselves transform.

Martyn Thomas, curiosity and innovation at Hatched Media.

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