The return of full-service agencies

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 09 March 2007 12:00AM

Nick Hurrell and Neil Dawson ask if it is still relevant to maintain the divisions between creative and media.

There has never been a better time to be in advertising. The opportunity exists to create communications for clients using the richest ever palette of creative tools.

And neither has there been a better time to be in media. Media owners are innovating daily in order to broaden the canvas on which creative content can be delivered.

And yet the creative and media agencies effectively live in separation, despite all the talk of integration and joined-up thinking. Since the structural split took place - nearly 20 years ago - most clients work with two or more rival pools of talent and value.

Much is made of the "good old days", when the media department was as robust and as influential as the creative department. These memories are misleading. All too often, the media plan was left to the last five minutes of the presentation, or omitted entirely if a good enough lunch booking beckoned. Full service was claimed, but not genuinely embraced.

Since then, independent media companies have evolved beyond recognition, offering strategic advice and research; bespoke tools and innovations, which put the creative agencies in the shade. They have embraced the evolving digital media landscape and offered clients consumer insight and the benefit of their commercial nous.

Naturally, rivalry has emerged from separation. The debates run and run: Is media the new creativity? Who has the "best" ideas? Which comes first - the big idea or the communications plan? There is a growing sense of separation anxiety.

The above misses the truth that, from a consumer perspective, media and creative are inextricably linked. The current structures, processes and business models are at odds with the way people experience and create media.

If the self-imposed divided structures and separate models work so well, why do so many creative and media companies exhibit a lack of conviction in them? Both sides are breaking ranks. As creative agencies have brought media planning back in-house, media agencies have added services such as strategic planning, branded content and sponsorship to their offering.

Once the challenge is acknowledged, there is a tempting path. Stick to your knitting, come up with strategy and ideas, leave the buying to the big boys. Unfortunately, you can't run strategy: clients and their brands are judged on what they do, not what they think. In the same way, you can't take responsibility for a client's business problem without executing the communications solution. Strategy and ideas are important, but without precise and faultless execution, they are worth nothing.

Media is a numbers game. It is ruthlessly scientific, hence the proliferation of bespoke tools, models and black box devices. Yet many clients say that one model is like another, and they award their business to the agency with the best thinking. Perhaps in future, media will be more thought than bought.

With the increasing proliferation of channels, the task may be as much one of creative assimilation as quantitative analysis; more focused on creative alliances than on brutal negotiations; more driven by effectiveness than by buying efficiency.

There will always be an agency that is prepared to buy your media at a lower price. But at what cost?

Size may not be everything. There are some very big players in media. In 2006, WPP's Group M added net new billings of £2.42 billion. There are clients for whom this scale is irresistible, but once again, there are changes ahead. Not only has the media landscape evolved beyond the planning and buying of spots and space, but there is now a continuing trend towards consumer-generated content. Since media is being democratised, who will be best at representing their clients' brands? If we spend our time in parochial arguments about who has lead agency status, will we miss the chance to generate and deliver coherent content in widely differing media for our clients?

The influence of the auditor is tangible and growing. There's a good reason why the clients like auditors. They iron out the discrepancies between expensive and cheap, between good and bad buying. As a result, the gap between great and good has narrowed. From a buying perspective, this lessens the risk for a client of employing a new entrant and allows them to concentrate on the value-added elements of media, not simply the cost-reducing ones.

Your old enemy across the negotiating table can now be your new ally. The media owners are a rich source of creative opportunity. The new market leads you to explore new ways of communicating. Before you approach a broadcaster to buy 1,000 ratings for a client, you can ask that broadcaster to work with you to produce bespoke content, or to develop a strategic alliance across their burgeoning platforms. This landscape is full of creative and commercial opportunities. Embracing it will lead to an enriching of the media plan and a more engaging set of talks with the consumer. There is not a media owner in the land that is not looking to broaden its interface with brands beyond spots and space.

Now's the ideal time for the full responsibility agency. Clients approach agencies with a business problem that needs to be solved. There are many different possible answers, but the best one will come from a group of people with both creative and media skills, and which can take full responsibility for the solution. Separate companies, in a global group, for example, can work hard to deliver this. But a single entity with a common agenda and a simple structure will do this instinctively.

Talented creative and media people are naturally attracted to and are inspired by one another. An agency where such skills are brought together can add significant value in achieving a client's business objectives. Over time, the industry-driven delineation between what is "creative" and what is "media" must become obsolete.

It is time for change. Media is undergoing seismic change. It is fragmenting and evolving on a daily basis. In the face of this pressure, the industry's self-imposed separation of creative and media is not only impractical and inefficient, but also increasingly unsustainable. Our industry is full of talented creative and entrepreneurial practitioners, who seem weary of the way things are. Maybe one or two of them will fancy a change. It's been like this for nearly 20 years, and yet the way things are may not be the way that they should be.

The simple question remains: if you were starting your own agency from today, would you divide creative and media? Or not?

SHOULD MEDIA PLANNING AND BUYING RETURN TO THE CREATIVE AGENCY FOLD?

- DOMINIC PROCTOR, WORLDWIDE CHIEF EXECUTIVE, MINDSHARE

The answer is no, but it's the question that is wrong. JWT started as a media agency, and developed into a full-service agency because that is what the market wanted. In the 90s, I had the privilege of running JWT in a period when I was often reminded that it was the quintessential full-service agency. The problem was that it was a full-service agency at a time when clients were increasingly rejecting full-service agencies, quintessential or otherwise. Specialist partners were more useful to them than generalists.

There is a new paradigm, which fuses content and clout to deliver distribution for the benefit of clients. This is still the case today. Unless we are bonkers, we should all continue to listen to the market.

So, the question posed is the wrong question. The right question is: "Should marketing efforts be integrated, and if so, how?" Again the market has responded with an emphatic "yes" to the first bit. But to the second, I have not met many clients who care much about the structures which allow this to happen, just as long as it does happen. The challenge is that they have as much desire for specialisation as they have for integration, and the only sensible solution to this conundrum is collaboration, wherever the integrated team is led from.

The media agency should continue to be accountable for channel strategy, content strategy, media planning, execution and ROI. We should work closely with the creative agency, who should be concentrating on moving away from the old TV ad model, but still keeping a focus on creative ideas and collaboration.

There is a saying in Marseille that you can make a wonderful bouillabaisse from a tankful of fish, but reversing the process is tricky, and not very rewarding for your customers.

- KATIE VANNECK, MARKETING DIRECTOR, TELEGRAPH MEDIA GROUP

This question is really about that ubiquitous word "integration" that we all hear so much about. But at Telegraph Media Group, "integration" is more than management semantics. Really making integration work in a business as complex as TMG, so that it manifestly affects the workings of the business to drive reach, revenues and ultimately profit, relies on many things, including a single-minded strategic goal, adequate and sustained investment, energy, commitment, and not to mention a diehard sense of humour.

Arguments against integration often focus on the cost of losing specialists, but I would argue a truly integrated operation can and does facilitate vibrant expertise, rather than compromise it.

Yet the question belies a slightly "old school" assumption. Great comms ideas can come from anywhere. We should remember that in today's digitally obsessed world, it's often the technology that drives consumer behaviour and needs. So arguably, any agency with a digital capability could deliver a full-service solution, not just an above-the-line creative agency that happens to offer a media planning function.

Even so, it is foolish to assume that having the same switchboard and address creates a kind of utopian media/creative communication flow. The onus is on us as the clients to structure our working relationships with, and between, our agencies, and teams within our agencies, to strive to deliver the benefits of integration.

To answer the question, an integrated agency approach is crucial if we want to make sense of (and money from) this complex media environment. It is possible, whether you choose a single off-the-peg agency or several specialist ones. It is down to clients to build that sense of one team.

- CHRISTINE WALKER, CHAIRMAN, WALKER MEDIA

The issues that lie behind creative agencies' ambitions to return media planning and buying to their fold are not about advertising best practice. They are about the erosion of influence and margins in equal measure.

In any case, full service is not an ownership or structural issue. It's a state of mind, a way of working.

More than a decade ago, when full service was commonplace, the media options were relatively limited, and the debate was about reach and frequency and the trade-off between price and quality. Media opportunities have proliferated at a rate of knots, with the result that a return to the "full service" of yesteryear is not an option. Creative techniques have also developed, and many are "owned" by agencies other than "traditional" creative agencies.

As ever, the issue is talent. It was then and it is now. If a creative agency has the vision to hire really talented people to offer a media service, and media people can see the opportunity to improve the media offering - both planning and buying - then it may be possible to have a voice, but only on a limited scale. The volume in the market is tied tightly to existing media agencies, which also house the vast majority of talent. While the media agencies can't afford to become complacent, a few creative agencies bundling up media as part of their offering will only serve to sharpen their approach and might ultimately undermine creative agencies further.

- NIGEL JONES, CO-PRESIDENT, DRAFTFCB GROUP

Media buying clout is still critical. Hence the concentration of buying centres and group-wide solutions. So media buying should stay where it is. Media planning is different.

As an account planner in the 90s, I saw media planning in a creative agency act as a real stimulus for creative ideas. Great creative often came from media-based insights about when and where consumers would be most interested in talking with a brand. Only with the media planners playing an active and early role inside the agency did these insights get acted upon.

With the broader range of media available nowadays, the importance of media-led insights is greater than ever. Media planning, treated as an equal partner alongside account planning, data planning, business management and creative, can increase the impact of creative solutions at a time when advertising in traditional media is increasingly less central to consumers' lives.

But media planning is essential if a creative agency is to be regarded as a business partner. Clients are looking to creative agencies for multichannel solutions that embrace broadcast, direct, digital and ambient. Indeed, this is the raison d'etre for the creation of DraftFCB. Agencies can only do this credibly if they have media planning in-house that understands the quantitative value of all these channels and their synergistic effects. Like it or not, without this, creative agencies look more like the entertainment brought on after the serious work has been completed, rather than the creative communication business partners they can be.

So the prodigal son needs to come home, with, of course, the skills to provide insights and quantify behavioural response across a broader range of channels than when he went away.

- DEREK MORRIS, VICE-CHAIRMAN AND CHIEF STRATEGY OFFICER, ZENITHOPTIMEDIA

There's a need for joined-up thinking, but how you get to that is still a big debate. I don't think you're going to see the big media brands moving back into advertising agencies: it's too much of a reverse gear.

We'll see significant talents trying to make it work. Some agencies will bring people in, but we may well see a trend over the next years where some of the media agencies form an alliance with creative agencies. It's not just going to be a one-way street. Just as we're seeing the beginnings of plays from the advertising agencies to do it, we might see something coming back the other way.

New-media has changed it for me. I don't know how I can recommend using mobile media to a client without being able to show them how it would work.

I'd offer a note of caution to agencies, though. It's difficult to put one man in the corner and say "we do media", particularly when everyone else in the agency is pointing at something else.

It will fail if all you do is get media men in order to sell the television ad. Advertising agencies will be more successful when they realise it requires a wholesale change in the way they think and work, rather than something on the side.

Maybe it was wrong to split this up in the first place. It's not only that the ad agencies will embrace media planning, but also media companies finding federations to deliver creative work.

- SIMON CLEMMOW, PLANNING PARTNER, CLEMMOW HORNBY INGE

Yes, full-service media planning and buying should return to the creative agency fold. After all the talk about different models of integration, it's clear that none of them goes far enough in meeting the needs of today's forward-thinking clients. They are no longer saying: "I need a new digital/direct/advertising campaign." What they are saying is: "I need a creative solution to my business problem. I am open-minded as to what that solution might look like. I need to find the right partner to help me through to the answer."

So clients no longer want to have to make inter-media decisions in advance of talking to creative agencies. And agencies will need to be able to deliver creative solutions to business problems, soup to nuts. Or perhaps nuts to soup, because, these days, campaigns are increasingly built "inside out". In other words, they are as likely to be built around a packaging innovation, event, website or staff uniform as they are around a TV ad.

This means that offering a group of companies "covering off" the numerous different disciplines of marketing communication is no longer enough. Instead, it means offering one front door, one bottom line, and access to the most talented people across all disciplines. This means having a full-service media resource in-house.

How should it be done? The answer is reinvention, which is tough for the big agency groups. The first step has to be proper media planning genuinely integrated within brandcentric ideas teams. Then, evolving the planning discipline to encompass brand planning, data planning and communications planning in the same discipline. Couple that with a strategic alliance with a like-minded buying facility to produce "MediaShop inside CreativeCo" or "CreativeCo powered by MediaShop", and we're on the way.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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