Feature

The Campaign Essay: Are media owners the new planners?

The separation of media planning and buying departments has left a hole that is being filled by a new type of planner - the media owner, the Walker Media chief Phil Georgiadis argues. Never one to pass up an op-portunity for a soundbite, I created something of a stir at last year's Campaign Media Awards when I said that we in the agency world were witnessing the rise of the media owner as media planner.

While I was pretty sure that what I was saying would be picked up by the journalists in the room, what I hadn't banked on was the spontaneous cheer from the audience, nor the amount of talk my remarks generated.

I should have expected it, of course. Increasingly, the bosses of the various media owners are demanding that their staff go the extra mile to generate new revenue, or to take a disproportionate share of an existing budget. Indeed, there are whole departments dedicated to innovation and advertiser partnerships. And this is not just within each media owner - it extends to co-operation between companies.

The opportunity to chair the awards and make these public comments only came about by chance. Tess Alps should have been in the chair, but she was laid low on the day. I was early for the judging, having dropped my daughter at school around the corner, and Campaign's editor, Claire Beale, seized the moment. Marc Mendoza could have got in there but he was having a sandwich in the cafe next door. Anyway, it was a pleasure and a privilege - a rare moment of reflection.

On judging day, many on the illustrious panel noted the growing prominence of media-owner entries in categories that used to be the sole domain of the media agency. In a few cases, both the agency and the media owner had entered the same work separately. You'd never get away with that at a creative judging day - scandal, fodder for the front page! It seemed an issue worthy of wider discussion.

At the time, some people suggested it was foolhardy of me to say that media owners were now planners, and that it would undermine my own business.

Of course, this is nonsense. I am not suggesting media planners in media agencies will become extinct, nor am I suggesting that media owners can offer the same level of neutrality as agency planners.

Nevertheless, the fact is that some advertisers are finding they can get total communications solutions from a single media owner. Media agencies can't really feel threatened by this, since in most cases they have briefed the media owners to come up with ideas - but I guess it might suit some agencies to downplay that contribution, keep these people in the shadows and take the credit with their clients.

In reality, it is the media agencies themselves that are grooming media owner-planners, albeit unwittingly. To understand why, we must consider a little bit of history.

Twenty years ago, a much larger number of separate media planning and buying points existed than in today's world. Some of them were known for placing creativity first. In most cases, they were by necessity linked to agencies with creative reputations - Lowe Howard-Spink and CDP spring to mind.

In these companies, there was often a house style to the media execution.

Lowe would buy the entire first break of a first-run Sunday night drama on ITV and the likes of Vauxhall, Tesco, Heineken and Lloyds would benefit from the undoubted impact and visibility that delivered.

The price premium attached to this agency approach was a secondary factor.

The philosophy was that the best media moments were precious, relatively rare and relevant to all clients, regardless of the specific requirements of each business. We lived in a world with a much clearer (and shorter) hierarchy of needs from advertising, where each medium had its place.

For example, reach, impact and delivering awareness and fame were the over-riding goals of a TV or outdoor campaign. If you wanted to convey more information or drive a direct response, you looked elsewhere.

While the boys and girls at Lowe Howard-Spink (mainly boys, it has to be said) were the kings and queens of this approach, they were not alone.

At WCRS, brands as diverse as BMW, Sharwoods and Prudential adopted a similar attitude. The foundations of BMW's current media strategy were laid down more than 25 years ago and today are adhered to more as a function of the creative agency's continued hold on the account than as a consequence of the current media agency input. Bartle Bogle Hegarty was also crafting powerful media properties, made famous through stunning creative work - remember Boddingtons, Levi's and Haagen-Dazs. Interestingly, in times past, there was a very strong correlation between the winners of the creative, media and effectiveness awards. This correlation certainly does not exist today.

But as some of us were sharpening our skills at spotting the next media property, there were those in the market who were steering advertisers towards lower service costs and guarantees of bigger discounts from the media owners. Between the extremes of the most aggressive price merchants and the most expensive creative media buyers lay many different options and a fantastic array of personalities with enormous talent.

The eventual death of the full-service media department is well chronicled.

What is absolutely certain is that media agencies separated from creative agencies not as a response to the growing complexity of the planning but as a result of the alluring promises of extra discounts and cheaper remuneration.

The creatively led buyers were forced to compromise or face the risk of total extinction - and in the end, they bottled it. It was safer to play the numbers game and sacrifice a level of media quality than to take the chance of being hung out to dry by an auditor or a procurement director.

Of course, pricing between agency buying points began to neutralise, so the promise of other kinds of differentiation took over as a selling-point and real added-value stuff such as proprietary research became more important. Much was promised but a lot less was delivered, in large part because of margin pressures.

The rush to consolidate happened in the context of lower interest rates, and smaller fees and commissions.

It just so happened that the consolidation process also coincided with an incredible era of media change - entirely new media such as ambient and the internet arrived on the scene, in addition to the proliferation and fragmentation of existing options.

It is hardly surprising that agencies are now leaning on the resources of media owners to help them generate new and innovative solutions. To deliver the promise of life beyond spots and space takes time, additional and usually higher-priced resources, and the co-operation of the media.

You can't buy today's version of media innovation from a ratecard.

In the simpler world of the past, media planners were rewarded and awarded for combining creative, media and market insights in order to create a discernable competitive advantage within the media where the advertising budget was largely being spent. The agency planner was also the agency buyer and therefore kept the media owner in check.

Nowadays, media planners are rewarded and awarded for the things they do that go beyond the conventional. In the modern environment, media owners will increasingly feature and the media buyers will be less equipped to assess the value of innovation, distanced as they are, in most instances, from the planning process.

The media owner/agency world has changed dramatically over the past few years and it seems to me that the pace of change is accelerating. As the large groups pool their billings in mega-agency deals, we once again face the downsides of fragmenting the process of planning from buying.

Back in the 90s, there were those who argued that media should not be separated from creative planning. That argument is once again live, and some creative agencies are busy trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.

In the meantime, the industry is once again busy separating - this time, the media planning agency from the media buying/negotiation centre. The agencies that keep planning and buying under one roof will be better placed to keep that process in check and ensure that any proposal is fully and properly evaluated. But if media owners see this new separation as an opportunity to demonstrate their strategic planning skills, who can blame them?

- Phil Georgiadis is the chief executive of Walker Media.

GREAT PLANNING BY MEDIA OWNERS

Dorothy Perkins: Rachel Hunter

Media owner: Emap Advertising

Client: Dorothy Perkins

Awards: Campaign Media Awards commendation (Best fashion, beauty and healthcare), Mediaweek Awards highly commended (Tactical pitch of the year)

Emap's creative solutions team created a media first when they booked Rachel Hunter to appear in a one-off New Woman campaign for Dorothy Perkins.

After selling the concept of a celebrity advertorial to the client, the team got a series of knockbacks during their hunt for a celeb.

"We don't look at any visual advertising work under £200,000," Tamzin Outhwaite's management team told them, while Kelly Brook's reps quoted a fee of £100,000.

In the end, Hunter (who was Emap's first choice) agreed to appear in the six-page advertorial. Emap also convinced Hunter's management to allow the images to be used in Dorothy Perkins stores for no extra fee, and to be promoted via editorial in the Daily Mail's Femail section.

New Woman is now one of the retailer's key media partners. "Sales have been above target since Rachel Hunter featured in our windows, and customer feedback has been fantastic," Louise Taylor, the Dorothy Perkins marketing manager, says.

ALIEN vs PREDATOR

Media owner: JCDecaux

Client: 20th Century Fox

Awards: Eligible this year

The JCDecaux Innovate team developed a new piece of poster technology called the Opinionator, specifically to promote the launch of the 20th Century Fox film Alien vs Predator.

The sales team decided to ask consumers to vote on who they wanted to see win in the battle of the movie monsters.Innovate placed two buttons on each six-sheet poster and collated responses via technology fitted in the poster units.

537,000 hits were registered over the 20 sites in London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester over the two-week campaign. In the end, Alien edged it, with 285,000 votes to Predator's 252,000.

DR PEPPER - PUNK'D

Media owner: MTV/Viacom

Client: Dr Pepper

Awards: Eligible this year

Dr Pepper was already sponsoring Punk'd on MTV - the show in which the Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher sets up his celebrity mates with Jeremy Beadle-style hidden cameras - when Viacom Brand Solutions came up with its own take on the programme.

Dr Pepper's strapline, "What's the worst that could happen?", gave the team the idea of offering consumers the chance to give their own mates the Punk'd treatment.

Consumers were encouraged to write in and nominate their friends via on-pack promotions and the Dr Pepper website. Viacom then created ten mini-Punk'd shows and aired them in ad slots around the real Punk'd shows.

The campaign was hugely successful, according to Dr Pepper, helping it improve both sales and brand measures.

RACING SPIRIT

Media owner: The Telegraph Group

Client: British Horseracing Board

Awards: Campaign Media Awards winner (Best financial and corporate campaign), Mediaweek Awards finalist (Best use of a media property, Strategic pitch of the year)

The Daily Telegraph was briefed by the media agency BrandConnection to come up with something innovative for the British Horseracing Board on a budget of just £200,000. The original concept of a glamorous photography competition proved difficult to translate to the reality of Newbury on a wet Wednesday night, so the Telegraph team suggested using the winning photos in a calendar, to be printed and distributed by the paper.

Production had to be quick, to fit in with the launch of the horseracing film Seabiscuit, which the BHB was sponsoring. The Telegraph team contacted every registered photography tutor in the country to get their students involved, arranged access to racecourses and sorted out the judging. The winning photos were exhibited in The Sunday Telegraph Magazine and at racecourses around the UK.

Topics