PERSPECTIVE: BBH's Starcom sale is fresh opportunity to develop planning

A quick mental run-through of the leading lights of the media agency world is enough to arrest any fancies that this is a fashionable corner of the ad business.

Even so, there's no doubting that media is what the smart creative agency PowerPoint presentations are wearing this season. So Bartle Bogle Hegarty's sale of its stake in one of the best UK media brands seems perhaps a little contrary.

BBH has this week offloaded its share in Starcom Motive, the media brand it created by merging its own media operation with Leo Burnett's in-house media department back in 2000. BBH has no doubt done very well, thank you, out of the deal (well enough for an unbecoming coyness to cloak how much Publicis actually paid). But where does that leave BBH at a time when its creative competitors are galloping after the media bandwagon?

Dig a little deeper and beneath the sale lies a clear media agenda for BBH. For a start, the mutual respect between BBH and the Starcom Motive team will ensure a continued fruitful relationship between the two former siblings. Second, this is far from back-tracking by BBH. The agency has been plotting for a while to bring some media expertise back in-house, even without the Starcom sale. BBH is reasserting the media agenda more strongly inside the agency as part of the creative development process.

Other agencies have also travelled this route, helping push media back on to the creative agency agenda.

But the really interesting thing about BBH's strategy is that the focus is on how to evolve the agency's planning function, not simply to replicate a media service provided more than adequately by the real media specialists such as Starcom. BBH seems to be edging towards a redefinition of the role of account planning, adding in a media dimension to give the whole planning function a new lease on the future of the communications business.

Combining media thinking and account planning is, again, not a new concept, but one whose time may now be coming. Some of the media agencies themselves have been slowly nudging towards something like an account planning offering and there are arguments as to why the function sits as comfortably with media thinking as with creative thinking. Imagine a world where account and media planning are combined under a media agency umbrella.

And with a growing supply of freelance creative talent out there, would you need a creative agency at all? Far fetched? Well, maybe. But BBH's "engagement planning" is a guard against such a scenario.

Media might be enjoying a moment of fashionability but if I were running a media agency, I might see a long-term opportunity in following BBH's planning thinking. And if I were running a creative agency, I think I'd be watching BBH with renewed nervousness.

- Caroline Marshall is on maternity leave.

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