Do brands really still need media agencies?

Marketers are united on the value of earned media, which has led to a theory that traditional media agencies will die out, writes Craig Smith

Yeo Valley: campaign  was booked with ITV without the input of a media agency
Yeo Valley: campaign was booked with ITV without the input of a media agency

Apple is in the business of technological disruption.

It has reinvented entire categories of consumer electronics and has torn the music retail industry asunder. Whether you admire its genius or loathe its arrogance, Apple could credibly claim to possess the power to breathe life into new media and to kill off the old. Yet it doesn't.

The latest ad for Apple's iPad 2 is prescient precisely because it foretells the death of nothing. It states: 'Now, we can watch a newspaper, listen to a magazine, curl up with a movie and see a phone call. Now, we can take a classroom anywhere, hold an entire bookstore and touch the stars. Because now, there's this.' The marketing and media industry is seldom so generous in its wishes for good health and longevity for technologies that have gone before. We revel in death, or at least in the anticipation of it; what we don't like to see is commercial coffin-dodgers.

Ever since the internet achieved mainstream awareness, some time in the mid-90s, rumours of the death of this, that or the other have been exaggerated, as the ability for brands to connect directly with consumers, or vice versa, has grown apace.

The media agency, more than any other entity in marketing's ecology, is the one that we most regularly and keenly seem to relish being put out of existence, whether by media owners dealing with clients directly, by online media auctions, or by the last-click tyranny of Google.

Now, the demise of the media agency is being predicted once again. This time the seeds of its apparent destruction are sown in the fertile soil of social, or, more specifically, earned media.

In late 2010, a two-minute ad debuted during the first live final of The X Factor on ITV. The 'Yeo Valley rap', created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, caught the public's attention and before the show had ended it was the ad, rather than The X Factor, that was top of the trending chart on Twitter.

YouTube views of it exceeded 200,000 in the first weekend and have since climbed to almost 1.9m. In the three months after the campaign's launch, Yeo Valley generated an incremental sales uplift of more than £3.5m, and won The Marketing Society Awards' Grand Prix to boot.

It had already been a good year for viral effect. Nike's 'Write the future', Tipp-Ex's 'Hunter shoots a bear' and Evian's 'Rollerbabies' had all followed a similar pattern of ads created with the multiplier of earned media specifically in mind.

Yet what stood out about Yeo Valley was that the TV slot - the bought media that had kicked it all off - had been negotiated and booked directly by BBH and Yeo Valley with Fremantle Media and ITV. Media's middleman had been shut out of the deal.

Booking a prime and extended slot in the middle of The X Factor does not take much in the way of media-planning grey matter; in fact, it is the sort of blunt ratings buy that gave early forms of media agency a bad name. The real issue is that today's most coveted and perhaps most valuable media cannot be bought by media agencies. Earned media, or people talking to people, can't be bought at all. Therefore, the logic goes, the traditional media agency, premised on a bought-media model, has at least one foot in the grave.

Gatekeeper role

The attack elicits a solid defence from media's most senior minds, albeit a qualified one. 'Any media agency that thinks it is in the reach and frequency business, or the planning and buying business, is endangered or already dead,' says Jim Hytner, president EMEA at Universal McCann. 'But we have restructured to meet the challenges of the new world and barely talk about "bought media". If you forget the hype behind the term "earned media" and focus on what it means to deliver it, you will see the contribution that media agencies make.'

Thomas Laranjo, a partner at independent media agency Total Media, supports the defence that reconstructed media agencies still have a gatekeeper role. 'Understanding consumer behaviour, being adept at manipulating data, identifying and targeting key audience segments, are all critical to engage with clients' customers through paid, owned, and earned media,' he says.

'The successful brand or agency understands when to deploy which media channel, how to engage with each channel, and how they interplay. Earned media has added another dimension of complexity, and we are needed more than ever.'

So why, other than naked self-interest on the part of rival marketing services, do rumours of media agencies' loosening grip on earned media opportunities persist? The reason, argues Matt Isaacs, chief executive at digital agency Essence, is that different disciplines have different combinations of tools, which allow them to stake their earned media claim, but that none possesses the full kit to make the choice for marketers an easy one.

'The challenge requires a new kind of agency. Will that be specialist social agencies? Perhaps, but more likely is integration that combines digital media, communications, technology and social media in powerful ways,' says Isaacs.

A key issue is that the greater the number of brands pursuing earned media becomes, the greater the clutter and the greater the need for a bought-media catalyst to create the necessary cut-through (see box, left).

Marketers tempted by the idea of dealing directly with media owners, or of navigating the social media landscape without the necessary media planning and deployment tools, will discover that the role of the middleman has fragmented to such a degree that disintermediation is not practicable or desirable.


The launch strategy for Nivea Invisible for Black & White deodorant was built on the insight that people find it difficult to throw out wardrobe staples, such as little black dresses, because of yellow stains. This led to a collaboration idea with Asos to create the exclusive Asos and Nivea timeless black-and-white dress collection.

People entered an online style challenge for the chance to win pieces from the black and white 'capsule' collection. Asos' bought and earned media assets were harnessed to push the campaign.

A joint fashion shoot publicised the collection and provided exclusive content, which ran in advertorials, was seeded to bloggers and splashed across social media platforms. The brand benefited because Asos.com was already established as a media owner in its own right.





Robin Grant Richard Morris





In the age of social media, where an earned media environment is the place that people choose to spend the majority of their time online, media agencies are becoming irrelevant. Their culture of 'buying' attention is a massive hindrance, and it is completely at odds with a conversational approach to marketing. Trying to buy in the relevant skills at a media agency, without a fundamental change to the media agency's culture, won't work either. Specialist social media agencies, built from the ground up, specifically to earn word of mouth for their clients, are proving this by outshining media agencies in the earned media environment.

Now more than ever, brands are going to need help managing the complexity inherent in media. Digital data sources are increasingly crucial in understanding consumer motivations and behaviours, and only media agencies have a heritage in transforming big data sets into insight.

Crucially, earned media can influence communications planning on an almost real-time basis.

Media agencies are best placed to assimilate social media feedback and then act on it.

Media agencies have experience integrating across a diverse group of specialist disciplines, and the objectivity that comes with being multi-skilled. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This means not starting with advertising, but a flexible idea born of great insight, which provides a platform for all marketing disciplines to work together as effectively as possible.



- Matt Isaacs, chief executive of Essence, on the qualities media agencies need to possess in the earned media era

- Understand the social media landscape and user behaviour (planning).

- Know how social network application programming interfaces work and the ability to develop engaging digital experiences (technical).

- Understand how social network ad platforms work and how they can be combined with non paid-for content (digital media).

- Have the ability to create compelling ideas for engaging audiences (creative and/or PR).

- Have the ability to track interactions with both paid and earned media, tie it all together and report on it consistently (analytics).

- Combine all these into a coherent programme across social media.