MEDIA FORUM: Should creative agencies return to doing media?

A rash of creative agencies setting up in-house media divisions begs the question: who really benefits, clients or agency? Ian Darby reports.

They're all at it. Having helped to drive media out of the door in the quest for refinement of their service, many creative agencies now want it back.

Clemmow Hornby Inge entered a joint venture with Naked Communications, Naked Inside, to put media at the heart of what it does. And last week, TBWA\London founded TBWA\Connections, an in-house media division to be headed by the ZenithOptimedia executive director, Enyi Nwosu, in association with the sister agency Manning Gottlieb OMD.

But is this a case of the lunatics re-entering the asylum? Or are the real lunatics the ones at the reins of creative agencies desperate for new revenue streams? While believing that they can build a real understanding of communications planning, some believe that their obsession with lovingly crafted TV ads might get in the way.

Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive of OMD Europe and a founder of Manning Gottlieb, argues that the complete turnaround from full-service days has created problems for ad agencies. He says: "This debate could stem from the whole era of full service and the subsequent unbundling. The ad agency model is decades old and hasn't much changed. There was unbundling of the full-service model because of client pressure for greater accountability and effectiveness but also because of entrepreneurs who saw money in media."

He argues that ad agencies no longer have the talent in-house to develop a communications plan at an early stage. So is it better for creative agencies to hire this talent themselves? "I don't necessarily think it's a better way (than working closely with a media agency) but this is a business about people. Relationships (between creative and media agencies) are a lot less personal, which is a great sadness. If you ask an ad agency, they might say that they have great relationships with media companies, they trust them, but also know that the media companies have their own fish to fry. The ad agencies need somebody who is part of their own team and understands their culture."

That said, Gottlieb has some words of criticism for ad agencies letting things get to this stage: "They perhaps should have questioned why they need to bring people in when they could have done it themselves - many account planners started as media planners. But rather than train individuals for two or three years, agencies are now having to go out and hire them."

Kelly Clark, the chief executive of MindShare, is suspicious of creative agency moves into this area. But shouldn't we welcome any bid by ad agencies toward understanding media better? "On what basis should we believe they can do that? If that had been true in the past why would advertisers take their media out to specialists like Carat, Zenith and MindShare? Understanding media channels will always be secondary to investing in creative talent and producing big-budget advertising campaigns."

And Clark is sceptical that ad agencies are motivated by the right reasons: "These moves smell of desperate times and desperate measures. Agencies are floundering and trying to keep up with change. This can seem to be less driven by client need than being about an agency's structure, control and egos."

Iain Jacob, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest, criticises ad agencies if they believe that they have solved the issue by bringing in one person to launch a media division: "The difficulty exists where a creative agency believes that it can bring in one or two media specialists to magically change the culture and approach of the business. The structural implications of understanding media are a bit more complex. Media agencies often do spend more money on consumer research work than creative agencies. You need this level of resource to be a good media person because it is complex."

He also believes that a media specialist entering a creative agency runs the risk of being isolated: "The danger is you get somebody who talks about the broad strategy but gets removed from the craft skills."

But Jacob argues that good creative agencies will be able to go further: "Some agencies are more involved in the fundamental process of looking at how planners and creatives work together."

Jacob would rather see closer collaboration between creative and media agencies: "If an agency considers the structure of how best it can work with other agencies rather than confronting them, that's the most effective way. But when they try to shoehorn in media, even if it's the same holding company, you tend not to get best of breed."

Chris Shaw, the chairman of Universal McCann UK and Europe, the Middle East and Africa, believes that moves made by agencies to get closer to the communications planning process are potentially a good thing: "Anything that raises the profile of communications planning is a good thing. The market is not big enough or well developed enough."

However, like Clark, he does have concerns: "But I would question whether ad agencies are best placed to do this. Are they genuinely neutral? Naked probably is but, in the case of TBWA, I'm not so sure. Its proposition is supported by the TBWA Brand Connections study, which is fine, but communications planning tends to work best when good relationships between agencies are allowed and ad agency groups tend to have vested interests."

Clients hold the purse strings and creative agencies argue that they are moving into new areas to benefit them. What do they think about creative agencies moving into this territory? Andrew Marsden, the category director at Britvic Soft Drinks, says it depends on the agency's motives: "If it's client driven, then, yes, it's a good thing. If it's agency driven to get revenue into the business, then you have to ask 'why?'."

Marsden argues that buying agencies have become better at creative media planning over the past five years, coinciding with creative agencies having to justify their higher margins: "This is a move to close the circle up. If a client is going in (to an ad agency) and saying that they're using a media buying agency that is not good at creative planning, then I can see a reason but if ad agencies are supplying it as an add-on to help produce better ads, then that's a different thing."

Concern over ad agency motives seems to be the main issue - many suspect them of chasing revenue streams without considering the needs of clients. But if they can collaborate well with media agencies while offering clients a genuinely good service they might just silence the doubters.

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