The Campaign Essay: Where does media go now?

Media has come far in the past ten years but is in danger of being pigeonholed. However, Jonathan Durden thinks media could lead a new super-breed of strategic talent with investment in creativity.

The Campaign Essay: Where does media go now?

I have been in media for 25 years and I am still in love with it. Sadly my mum has never had any idea what I do for a living. If pressed she tells her friends that I make Coronation Street. The fact that I have so completely failed to explain it to her so consistently since 1977 says it all. It must really be a case of media being all smoke and Daily Mirrors.

So when Campaign asked me to write about where media as a specialist skill is today, I have tried to take an uncharacteristically grounded approach to the topic. I’m being more like Thelma (Durden) in fact.

Now for those of you, like me, with no attention span and who are only capable of reading Exchange and Mart-style dialogue (BMW 528i, vgc, fsh, £9k o.n.o etc), here is the five line version of this piece.

Media has come a very long way in many areas, but we are in danger of becoming too disconnected from creativity and risk being squashed into a box that is just too small for us.

I thank you.

So with most of you now grazing happily on to the Diary section at the back, or the genius Jeremy Bullmore, I will fill in the gaps for my only reader.

You see Mum, since I started so much has been achieved in this industry. We have witnessed true media liberation. Even in Campaign we have come to be a headline subject for the first four pages, and not just an apologetic final paragraph towards the back half. With the hype, people have come to believe that exciting things are happening here. Our language has even become public property, a topic that rivals cars and football for popularity. Oiks in pubs can be overheard talking about the ratings levels for Millionaire or the overnight audience share for Footballers’ Wives.

In some ways we all owe a debt to the early entrepreneurs such as Chris Ingram, John Ayling, David Reich, Paul Green and Alan Rich. They pioneered the sector by recognising a gap created by the indifference of the agencies and the network owners. They had failed to recognise the critical role we had to play.

Funnily enough this was not as media in the intellectual process, which came later, but the really important stuff:

trading and cashflow.

Ultimately we were and are still measured by clients, the trade and the AAR and ranked accordingly by our billing figures. Even when media folk are at dinner parties with real people, we often qualify ourselves not by trying to explain the secrets of strategic planning (such as what the hell is it), but with the blunt huge numbers that we turn over or represent.

It is human nature to be drawn to areas of comfort, and it is the basic DNA of our business. It has affected the overall tone of the recruitment policy for decades, and is still the prevalent attitude of many a management running today’s media specialists. It is all about a comfort in numbers.

We have econometric models, qual and quant research, database mining, packaged products and inventory systems. All valuable, all needed, all progress. And ambitiously we have now set our sights on the main game.

Integrated communications planning, or the “I want to be the conductor not the brass section”, is being claimed because we are media-neutral. Yet all marketing services companies are aiming at the same spot. It is not our right to own it,

although we are well placed to do so, yet we may be just one of many choices for a client as an entry point to central advice.

I believe that our biggest barrier is our general discomfort with our link and input into creativity. This will pose the greatest danger to stunting our future growth. Numbers were never really the issue, merely the enabler to get us to where we are today.

Like a child leaving home for university, we bask in our new-found independence and marvel at our immortality. We are quite separate from agencies now, and have become lazy by relying too heavily on ideas from media owners to then call our own. After 12 straight years as an award judge, I feel I can spot those quite easily.

Few media companies employ dedicated creative minds on a scale that makes a real difference. Yes, I would of course say that PHD is the champion of these ideals, with others such as Starcom, Michaelides & Bednash, Naked and some very talented individuals dotted about. But it is not an industry-wide fundamental requirement, at least not yet. We do not connect with or contribute to the creative community nearly enough. And, Mum, that’s a shame.

Ever since Zenith rocked our world by introducing the concept of economies of scale to space and time, we have been on an inevitable road toward being seen as a commodity industry. In a recession-driven period with little room for risks to be taken, there seems to be little will to fundamentally change from that position.

Media specialists are now almost all owned by the same few networks that we used to think of as the establishment we were breaking away from.

The entrepreneurs have been bought and been absorbed. While all of the networks are all fine corporations, they all have wide marketing services portfolios. Media is now a big and important element of these activities, but any question of them challenging their fundamental advertising agency revenue interests is understandably unlikely. Media must take its place in the corporate queue for real investment, and it is out of the hands of their direct management teams who must pitch for attention and help.

And why do I believe that we should all be looking to place some more of these investments into creative support? Because the warning signs are there in the cracks that are appearing.

Naked (and Rocket before it) has been very smart in filling the needs of agencies to feed their creative departments with some media-led inspiration.

Clients are aware of this divide, and can see a real need too. Mars is a pioneer in this area, and as always so is Procter & Gamble. They may be in a minority at the moment, but they do have a track record of being the industry leaders.

And finally every media owner worth their salt has invested in creative services. Emap is brilliant, so is Channel 4 and The Guardian. In fact the list is very long. These media owners not only exist to help media companies look better, but also, quite rightly, are taking their futures into their own hands. They are selling bespoke ideas directly to clients.

Far from media conducting this orchestra, there is a danger that the musicians are forming groups of their own and are playing in different rooms without us. So what should be done? Well, I will tell you.

In my opinion, there are several actions. First, we should continue to do the things we have always done well,

because they still form the foundation of the business.

Trading and managing cash flow. Without trading at our base, we as a business are just a collection of niche and dispensable players without the leverage to be listened to.

Only the truly huge global clients are looking for some centralised global power and co-ordination. Sir Martin Sorrell has been very effective in selling this area, but actually all the networks have their mega successes.

Increasingly these deals are done at the corporate level and are beyond any local office interference. So be it.

Second, we should encourage special access and influence with the major media owners. I believe we are about to see companies and groups defined by their special privileges within specific media owner’s portfolios. Not everyone will be equal in future. Some of us may hold our own media interests too.

The ante will also be raised. Up to now we have spent too much time pissing around (sorry about the pun) with toilet doors and piddley diddley squat ambient stuff. Unless we think Hollywood, we aren’t really doing it.

Third, with regard to integrated communications planning, I believe that a new super breed of thinking talent should sit at the heart of each of the marketing networks. Instead of every individual company — from design, PR, media or ad agency — trying to replicate everyone else, it should be cleaned up and resourced at the centre.

As an aside, the good news is that until that day comes, media should go for it, because creativity weaknesses aside, we are we the best placed for now.

Lastly, media companies should invest more in creative talent in its broadest sense and try to arrest some of the territory away from the media owners. We should also more aggressively heal the rift with the advertising agencies, as we no longer have anything to prove to them or ourselves.

Anything else? Yes, some predictions.

Sadly in the short term, media pitches will get more dramatic, theatrical and cheesy. If clients don’t see a cameo celeb, or a crap version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? during their pitch processes, then they should consider themselves short-changed. In an effort to stand out we will all go too music hall and Arthur Askey.

While media companies do not take creativity seriously, there will also be a rash of start-ups with attitude concentrating on providing creative media input into the agency market, or independent corporate big idea brokers for the big client boys.

A research tool will emerge that establishes same currency values to each of the communication channels for every sector and every brand in every territory. Something solid on which to build integrated communications planning. A man called Oscar Jamhouri will become very rich, as he has the Holy Grail answer in this area. Good luck to him.

Finally, media has been a fantastic career to me so far and, privately Mum, I don’t think I know what it is either. All I do know is that for media to really achieve all it could, then creativity should be our new black.

Jonathan Durden is the chairman of PHD Group