Big multinationals stifle small agency flair and creativity

Fans of real ale, who, believe me, are not all fat men with beards, had a happy air about them last week. They heard that one of the UK's finest breweries, the Yorkshire-based T&R Theakston, engineered a family-backed buyout from the brewing giant Scottish Courage, writes Ian Darby.

A victory for the preservation of real ales, such as Old Peculier and XB, and certainly a victory for the continued existence of quality in an industry that is guilty of producing products blander than supermarket own-label diet lemonade.

The obvious analogy with the media agency world now follows. There is certainly a strong argument that the big multi-national networks are stifling creativity and differentiation in media agencies. And there are precious few of the big boys looking at buying back their businesses or, Chris Ingram aside, striking out on their own.

While media agencies say they're not threatened by creative agencies taking advantage of their dullness by launching media planning divisions, they should take notice when the media owners are diving into action.

This week sees another, Emap Advertising, setting out its creative stall to woo advertisers. This follows Capital Radio's quest to hire a creative director (it's still looking but has handed the former MediaCom man Mike Hope-Milne a more "creative" role). And at Sky, its first head of strategic planning, the former Starcom Motive director, Agostino di Falco, is attempting to offer better solutions for advertisers beyond spot advertising.

Emap Create seems to be more than a cynical stunt as it involves a nine-month programme for 240 sales staff intended to make all of them think more creatively.

No easy thing, especially as some people's idea of creativity might exist at quite a basic level while, on the other hand, all agencies and advertisers want on most occasions is for companies such as Emap to get the basics right.

Nonetheless, media owners are more creative than given credit for. While some media agencies are making efforts to make their people think differently (decide for yourself what MediaCom has achieved this with its "head of freshness"), many are just toying with the idea.

Media owners are under pressure to think more creatively than media buying agencies because it's central to their business and impacts their bottom-line more. A good, innovative idea might bring in a new advertiser but rarely, in isolation, wins a new client for a buying agency.

This is a shame because it has made media agencies think short term. They probably aren't too worried at the moment; after all, they still hold the important client relationships when it comes to deciding where to spend.

But advertisers won't think like this forever. If the good ideas are consistently emerging from media owners, the agencies will be firmly shut in their commoditised buying box. And that would be a disaster.

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