Katherine Levy: Data magic is what will bind a client to its media agency

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"The media agency is the USB stick of an advertiser's business"; media agencies "help share the pain" for clients; media agency people "really get under the skin of your business".

These were just a few comments espoused by clients including Expedia, RSA and Match.com at this year's annual Media 360 conference for clients, agencies and media owners.

The one word that held all these observations together was that popular, nigh-mystical and often unquantifiable thing despite its definition: data. David Fletcher, the head of analytics and insight at MEC, set the tone right from the start when he revealed an e-mail from an unnamed client, who begged for help with "consolidated programme reporting" - in other words, data collected by the client combined with data generated by the media agency. "This e-mail could have come from any client," he explained.

So far, so normal. But the really interesting talking point was how far clients have come to rely so very quickly and heavily on their media agency as a crutch in a data-driven world. Forget competitive media planning and buying - if an agency can create unique systems to cross-examine the wealth of data that many clients find overwhelming, it makes them indispensable.

Expedia's Andrew Warner explained how its media agency, PHD, which it works with across 12 markets, is essential as it "brings all that data together". Dominic Grounsell, the personal marketing director at RSA, put it even more succinctly when he said: "Changing agencies is a ball-ache - no-one wants to do it if you don't have to."

For media agencies, this promises a stronger foothold on the agency roster. Whereas creative shops remain vulnerable to the cut and thrust of frontline advertising (if a client hates the work, it's death), media agencies are grabbing safer land in the cerebral backwaters of a client's business.

This does not mean that all media agencies will be exempt from client churn just because they hold a vat of data. Data can be moved quickly if necessary: Orange moved its data-driven search business from i-level to MEC within hours of i-level's collapse. But as marketing departments are squeezed and clients have less capabilities to interrogate their own data, there is real opportunity for media agencies to ramp up new product development in this arena.

More clients are waking up to the fact that, while data itself is a transferable asset, the bit of magic that happens when an agency unpicks complex information and visualises it in a simple way that really moves the dial for a client's business isn't transferable. The more a media agency does this, the more respect it will get from clients. It might even mean media agencies can discard the burdensome "supplier" tag and proudly step into the "partner" league.

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