Media: All about ... Media agencies doing creative

Ad agencies could face competition from media specialists.

Media agencies are evolving. MindShare's restructure, announced last week, together with debate at the Venice Festival of Media, has placed a firm focus on the changing role of the media agency and especially its role in producing creative.

One strand in MindShare's attempt to move upstream in its relationships with clients involves the launch of an "invention" unit. Part of its remit is the "overseeing of creative development and production of content", something that MindShare already has considerable experience of (just one example was its work for the launch of the Dove Calming Night skin product in North America, which featured the Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman in a series of branded online "mini-movies").

Creative execution is a burgeoning opportunity for media agencies, opened up by digital channels and also media owners being increasingly open to content and product-placement deals. As Steve Hatch, the managing director of Mediaedge:cia, says: "The debate is now around who owns the idea, who owns the platform? This is any-one's game. We don't talk about media, but the idea and then how to activate that idea."

Media agencies, on the whole, don't seem too interested in taking on the ad agencies in the area of creating large-scale, traditional ad campaigns. As Steve King, the worldwide chief executive of ZenithOptimedia, said at the Venice Festival of Media: "I don't feel entirely comfortable leading creative producers, but media agencies are great gatekeepers of the process."

However, given that client focus and budgets are moving to other channels, then media agencies feel increasingly well-placed to take on the execution of new forms of content. As PHD's managing director, Daren Rubins, says: "In the old days, very few advertisers were brave enough to commit money to content creation, but distribution channels have been democratised in the digital world and the opportunities are now vast and accessible."

To varying degrees, the majority of media agencies are already involved in creative execution, but they are approaching this from a variety of standpoints.

1. One such approach is the creative "unit". Early this year, Initiative "soft launched" Lab@Initiative, a creative division within its agency. Led by the agency's former head of planning, Tony Manwaring, it will offer creative execution to clients of the media agency as well as new prospects. The launch of Lab, which has created work for five clients (including online work for Johnson & Johnson), is part of an international move by Initiative to launch tailored creative resources in different markets. Lab will tend to focus on small campaigns to provide "joined-up thinking" to clients, and digital activity is expected to be the mainstay of its business (although it has already created print and outdoor campaigns for clients). This is a formalisation of what other media agencies occasionally offer - the use of its designers to produce one-off campaigns for clients.

2. In some ways, a precursor to the Initiative approach was BLM Flint, the creative unit launched by BLM Media in 2003. Sensing a demand for small-scale creative duties from clients of the media agency, Flint (headed by Guy Blaskey) used a model of employing freelance creative talent when required. Work for clients including Dennis Publishing followed until Flint was closed in May 2007. Blaskey continued to offer creative execution services where needed by clients.

3. Another avenue open to media agencies lies in digital execution. For instance, WPP acquired the online creative and strategy agency XM London (formerly Bates Interactive) in 2002 as part of its takeover of Cordiant. The creative and strategy agency now sits within MEC and can offer online execution to clients of the media agency.

4. Advertiser-funded programming and other forms of branded content is an obvious area where media agencies are taking the lead in execution. Most agencies have an offering in this space, with some of the more established businesses including ZenithOptimedia's Newcast, MindShare Performance and Drum PHD. As one example, Drum, alongside more traditional sponsorships, has built a reputation for branded content projects with the likes of COI, O2 and the Northwest Development Agency.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

ADVERTISERS

- At times a "one-stop shop", especially for smaller, fast-turnaround or digital work.

- Greater focus on solutions across media, not necessarily tied to spot advertising.

- Access to content and production expertise in the area of developing long-form programming and other alternatives to ads.

MEDIA AGENCIES

- Extra revenue stream.

- A way of building deeper relations with clients.

- Closer relations with media owners, who, in many cases, have moved into content creation and have their own creative solutions and design units. Media agency exposure to these "contact points" potentially gives them an advantage.

- A need to invest in talent from creative fields. Agencies are increasingly hiring from ad agencies, production houses, new-media consultancies and media owners to deliver idea, execution and then measurement.

AD AGENCIES

- Creative agencies face competition from media agencies, especially in branded content creation and digital advertising. But as Manwaring says: "It's an opportunity at this point, but it's not necessarily all the big stuff - there are plenty of brilliant agencies doing TV campaigns, that's not where we'll operate."

- That said, there are an increasing number of media agencies offering basic design and ad production facilities. MEC is one of those. But Hatch adds: "MEC is not in the game of making ads. But in terms of making and producing content, we are absolutely in that game."

- However, there are examples of co-operation between ad and media agencies. Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, for instance, has the Lunar joint venture with PHD Rocket. Lunar takes a creative agency team and puts them together with communications planners.

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