Are media owners now more attractive than media shops?

What are the things that media owners offer that are tempting more agency executives to cross over to the other side, Arif Durrani and David Benady ask.

Anyone with half an eye on the media marketplace in recent years will have noticed a trend in senior executives increasingly being lured away from media agencies by media owners – those once deemed the less attractive, more commercial side of the business.

For the long-serving media agency executive looking for their next big career break, a media owner could provide an exciting step change and a new challenge, fuelled not least by the number of big tech companies now becoming major players in this space.

Perhaps all agency folk now secretly harbour the dream of receiving that career-changing phone call from a media owner, deny it as they will.

Facebook has hoovered up numerous ex-agency executives, hiring Maxus’ chief client officer, Neil Stewart, as the head of agency for Asia-Pacific at the end of last year and poaching the MEC boss, Steve Hatch, in 2013. Last year, Twitter bagged the PHD strategy chief, David Wilding, and Yahoo lassoed Omnicom’s worldwide trading chief, Marc Bignell.

That said, it’s not just the tech giants that are attracting media agency executives. News UK brought in Omnicom Media Group’s Chris Amor to head its trading just before Christmas, while The Guardian appointed Initiative’s managing director, Anna Watkins, to lead its newly launched Guardian Labs in 2013.

They join a long line of senior people who have worked for years in media agencies before eventually crossing the divide. Jonathan Allan, for example, had been a long-time OMD man – he joined as a graduate recruit in 1995 – before heading off to Channel 4 to become its sales director in 2011.

It all seems to be one-way traffic, though. Could it be the pull of sizeable share options and the mega-pay on offer from the tech giants, TV stations and newspaper groups? For many, it may be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire as media owners are increasingly cutting out the middleman and building direct client relationships. Perhaps that very development is a major factor in such companies being attracted to agency executives in the first place.

MAYBE

Steve Hatch
Managing director, Facebook UK and Ireland

In making the change [to media owner], I have been struck by three things.

First, going from what you know to a new place with a new culture, a diverse range of people, new ways of working and an extraordinary pace meant having an open mind was essential. As was clarity in the direction I wanted to take the business. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is essential.

Second, from a business perspective, the heart of my role is the same: creating growth. Growth of the people I work with and growth of our clients’ business, as well as growth of our company that comes from making these two things happen. What is different in a tech company is the pace and rhythm – it’s much faster. Quarterly not annually, constant product innovation (not to mention acquisitions) and a con­nection to an organisation that, by definition, is global. It’s more akin to the rhythm of retail, where you have to be clear on your strategy and adaptable on how you execute, versus the intense "bass" rhythm of the agency world, where bigger but fewer pitches often dictate the business cycle.

Finally, if the core is the same, the experience couldn’t be more different. In a tech company, you soon realise just how varied and multiskilled the organisation is. It’s humbling to be among so many brilliant people, and no-one can have a total understanding of all these areas. The old-fashioned command and control wouldn’t work.

But this isn’t the biggest difference. The biggest difference is being in ultimate service to the people who use the platforms. Every time I see a Facebook logo sticker on a business window or someone on the train updating their status on a phone, it reminds me why I’m here. Contributing to something that is and will always be bigger than me and being in a company that is making a difference in the world are great reasons to go to work.

NO

Marc Bignell
Head of agency and trading, EMEA, Yahoo

Agency folk tend to understand what clients want. For me, the appeal of Yahoo was the opportunity to work in a future-facing business with digitally oriented experts who wanted to understand the agency world better.

NO

Matt Adams
Chief media officer, iProspect

Media owners are different rather than better. Many executives who have moved had worked for a long time in agencies. The agency environment is rich and rewarding but, often, agencies do not do enough to publicise that.

MAYBE

Jonathan Allan
Sales director, Channel 4

I left for Channel 4 because it was time for a change. Media agencies are fantastic places to build a career and work with great people – their talent is definitely attractive to media owners. Everyone should try both sides ofthe fence.

YES

Kathleen Saxton
Founder, The Lighthouse Company

There is a real and growing pattern for leaders from agencies to cross over to the media owner side. The pace, the pay and the career potential all appeal, as does the rise in direct client relationships.

MAYBE

David Wilding
Director of planning, Twitter UK

My first impression is that the two sides are more similar than you might think.

Much of my time is spent in a similar way to how it was at an agency – thinking about brands and the way they communicate, trying to be clear on what works and why, and developing ideas alongside clients, agencies and media owners. And Tweeting. Lots of Tweeting.

But, of course, the main difference is that you’re constantly thinking about and representing a product. I’m fascinated and enchanted by Twitter – both as a planner and as a user of the product. I genuinely can’t think of many communications ideas I have admired over the past few years that haven’t flowed through Twitter in some way. On a personal level, Twitter makes me think, laugh and – in the case of @SW_Trains – cry every day.

I had hoped that being a regular Twitter user before joining would mean that I would already be up to speed on the product when I started. I was wrong. The vertical part of my "T-shape" (we’re all T-shaped thinkers, right?) took a thorough going over in the first few weeks.

And therein lies the biggest challenge I have found to date. It’s brilliant that people want to hear from and talk about Twitter, but my natural inclination from an agency is to talk about the client first. It sometimes feels like you need two meetings – one to talk about a client, the other to talk about Twitter.

While we talk about two "sides", people and culture transcend any divide and make all the difference. In that respect, it is at Twitter as it was at PHD. Brilliant people trying to do the very best work they can. I feel ridiculously lucky.

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