Media: Double Standards - Independent comms planners face the downturn

Things are still looking good for comms planning specialists, particularly if their independent status means they can act quickly for clients.

PETE EDWARDS - PARTNER, EDWARDS GROOM SAUNDERS

- What's the best thing about working at your business?

We set up with one principle: to do the best and most effective work we could. It's very satisfying that we can use our years of experience on solving client problems rather than on dress code policy, how many toasters should be in each kitchen or Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.

- Is the "communications planning" agency tag still an attraction for clients or has it become a bit old hat?

The sexiness of "comms planning" that was built around the buzz of media neutrality and traffic cones has passed - and has evolved into something more professional and essential. Is the term old hat? It probably doesn't adequately reflect the full scope and value of the service, but it's our job to explain to prospective clients just what we think it means and what good "comms planning" delivers.

- How much of your time do you spend pitching and how rewarding has this been this year?

We are lucky that we have a pretty balanced source of new business from other sources, predominantly through referrals and working with a wide range of partner agencies - we've managed to grow the business 65 per cent this year so the blend is clearly working. Pitching sharpens the offer and is energising and dynamic, but too much exposure to the slightly desperate beauty parade often driven by cost is distracting.

- How badly will the "downturn" bite you as a small business?

At a time when clients are likely to face the toughest examination of their marketing budgets ever, it's not size that matters (!), but what you are offering. In fact, scale potentially is a palpable drawback, lumbering process, structure of the big operation etc, when what clients need is nimble thinking, swiftly actionable insights and big ideas that work.

- What one thing are clients asking you about the most at the moment?

Integration - while it's foolish to judge the full-service past as rose-tinted perfection, the connection of "content" and "context" specialists was more regular and effective. Customers form opinions of brands, products, services in a multi-faceted and joined-up way. Clients get that, and want their agency partners to structure in the same way.

- What's the best bit of work you've created this year?

I'm most proud of the work we've done on the bookmaker William Hill. We shifted activity away from simple "best odds'" messaging in the traditional ad presence, to a more relevant and effective presence - contextual odds and betting markets embedded in content - across print, online and mobile, as well as specially produced sports content distributed digitally.

- How much do you value your independence?

Independence is vital - not simply from a global holding company structure, but from the buying process. The debate of executional deal-makers on the same payroll as "impartial" strategic planners is an old one, but is more relevant now than ever. Global full-service media agencies often make the minority of their income from direct client payments. The remainder comes from "funny money". This is corrupting to impartial advice.

- How far can you drive a golf ball?

About 350 miles on a full tank of petrol - the balls and clubs I own perform better locked in the boot of my car than on any course.

ANDREW STEPHENS - FOUNDING PARTNER, GOODSTUFF

- What's the best thing about working at your business?

Being able to do the right thing and being able to action the principles and values we personally believe in - whether it's what business to pitch for, what terms to do business on or what perks to give team members right through to involving our team in most decisions.

- Is the "communications planning" agency tag still an attraction for clients or has it become a bit old hat?

Far from it and my prediction is that, despite losing Michaelides & Bednash, the sector will bounce back and flourish as more and more clients want objectivity, creativity and entrepreneurialism. Clients are finding their existing communication models aren't working as well as they used to and they want to take a step back and review everything - audience growth opportunities, brand behaviour in communications, channel mix, investment levels and realistic likely returns.

- How much of your time do you spend pitching and how rewarding has this been this year?

I think new business should be done by the owners where humanly possible, especially as so much of our business comes from referral and recommendation. This year, in particular, it's been very rewarding as we've won more business than any other comms agency. It includes Xbox, Living, Madame Tussauds, ATOC, 5th Wall Group, Pizza Express and Howies.

- How badly will the "downturn" bite you as a small business?

Small, well-run agencies that can provide objectivity, creativity and entrepreneurialism should do well. We are simply quicker to respond, quicker to see opportunities and don't have big agency bureaucracy to get through to make things happen. Therefore, rather than fear the downturn, we are sensing an opportunity and are looking to invest ahead in additional team members and new service launches. It's also a good opportunity to ensure best financial practice just in case.

- What one thing are clients asking you about the most at the moment?

Is the client cricket trip still on next year? Beyond that and referring to a previous answer, clients are increasingly asking us for much more pure communications planning and asking "are we doing the right thing" - which can be a huge question involving all their communication activities.

- What's the best bit of work you've created this year?

Cheating, as I can't decide. Xbox Camp Fire Sessions, where we are creating a music event for Xbox, or Living TV's launch of Lipstick Jungle, where we created Lipstick Lattes with Coffee Republic, Heat reverse covers and a partnership with ASOS and Bliss.

- How much do you value your independence?

We value it very highly, but not as highly as Pete, I guess. When Ben [Hayes, partner] and I set up Goodstuff, we negotiated a deal with Omnicom Media Group to take a small minority stake in the business. The advantage of this, which no other comms planning agency can claim, is that we retain the independence of thought and of agency management, but are able to call upon the talent, insight and resources of the world's biggest marcoms group.

- How far can you drive a golf ball?

A lot further and definitely straighter than Pete.

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