Feature

Media Forum: Can media input aid creative?

Are the advertising agency planning subsidiaries working? Alasdair Reid reports.

When Naked Communications made its great breakthrough, winning just about every single "agency of the year" plaudit going in 2002, observers predicted it was the vanguard of a new wave of dedicated, innovative, challenging communications planning specialists.

They were right - apart from another important detail. Naked wasn't part of a new wave. It was the new wave - and one that also washed through the creative agency market in the form of a handful of joint ventures: Naked Inside with Clemmow Hornby Inge, Naked Ambition with Grey, Element with WCRS and Happen with Fallon.

The rationale was clear. Creative agencies, long since shorn of their media departments and unhappy in their relationships with the spectrum of media agencies used by their clients, needed a new source of big-picture communications intelligence.

It made sense. And the demise of Naked Ambition was surely an aberration, falling foul as it did of internal politics at Grey. But then a few other setbacks followed. The new marketing team at the Telegraph Group put Naked Inside on notice; Element's key client BMW decided to review; and last week, Phil Dowgierd, the head of Happen, departed.

Disconcerting noises have also been emanating from the creative community.

The media environment has not evolved at quite the nosebleed-inducing speed that the Nakeds of this world have been predicting, some stalwarts say.

They also point to fundamental, if blinkered, conflicts of interest.

It all boils down to the fact that creative agencies like TV commercials.

It's what they have known and loved for decades. It's what they are best at. It's what they are structured to do. It can be tiresome when media neutrals tell them not to do it.

So, has the new wave broken? John Harlow, one of Naked's founding partners, reacts in robust fashion - there is increasing demand, he claims, from creative agencies for the Naked product. He says: "Creative agencies are being pushed by clients to develop ideas that work in the complex patterns of behaviour within modern consumer lives. What we are providing is broader context planning to allow creative ideas to grow. For a young audience, media such as iPods, games and mobiles dominate - that means creating an entirely different context for idea development."

He points out that the joint ventures typically grow out of creative agency needs and, in all but one example, were not driven forward in the first instance by Naked. That trend is continuing and further ventures are in the pipeline.

One client who gives it a vote of approval is Katie Vanneck, the marketing director of the Telegraph Group, who recently reappointed CHI and Naked Inside. She says: "The (joint venture) structure reflects the way our marketing team is set up - here we get an agency solution that is an extension of our marketing department. Naked Inside is refreshing because, from a creative and planning perspective, it begins the process with the consumer."

But even fans of the joint venture approach say they sense the odd squabble about how fees are apportioned.

It makes them worry about the long-term sustainability of the structure.

And there are sceptics, not least among the mainstream media specialists.

Christine Walker, the chairman of Walker Media, confesses she's among them. She states: "Much of this is totally cosmetic and it comes about because agencies feel threatened or become insecure. But when solutions are patched together they are rarely sustainable. And you have to feel for the poor guy who has to go in each day and work in an environment where he absolutely knows the agency is never really going to start from the communications planning perspective. Creative agencies just don't work that way. And, yes, they may worry about all sorts of things, like the impact of personal video recorders on people's media behaviour, but I'm not sure this sort of structure helps."

Graham Bednash, the managing partner of the UK's first communications planning agency, Michaelides & Bednash, is fully behind the aims of companies such as Naked. He has an open mind as regards structure, but understands why joint ventures may turn out to be hard work. "It can be very difficult for a couple of individuals to change a process that has been around for 50 years. It won't work unless it is a fundamental ethos of the creative agency to work in a different way," he says.

YES - JOHN HARLOW, FOUNDING PARTNER, NAKED

"Channel knowledge is essential in providing a robust framework for the ad agencies that have less expertise in this field. Several are attempting to poach people here to signal that they take their clients' requirements seriously. Others approach Naked as a credible supplier of this thinking."

YES - KATIE VANNECK, MARKETING DIRECTOR, TELEGRAPH GROUP

"Our requirements are both in brand building and on the tactical side and it is true that it is more complicated with all the market options you have these days. We feel that with a collaborative structure we get better specialists in the disciplines we need and it doesn't cost us more to do it this way."

NO - CHRISTINE WALKER, CHAIRMAN, WALKER MEDIA

"From a client point of view, especially those who are constrained in their choice of agencies by decisions taken on another continent, getting an agency like Naked involved on this sort of basis holds the prospect of doing something a bit different. But the truth is that anything Naked can do media agencies can do just as well or better."

MAYBE - GRAHAM BEDNASH, MANAGING PARTNER, MICHAELIDES & BEDNASH

"You have to ensure that you work with planners and creative teams right from the beginning, before the brief has been written. If the agency doesn't embrace that then you become a solitary voice and end up doing basic amplification and making the brief work in other media."

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