Planning excellence can never be taken for granted in the television medium. There has always been a suspicion that, despite their best intentions, some big consolidated groups have continued to set a higher value on negotiating expertise than on strategic vision. That, some say, could be downright dangerous given the rapid manner in which television is evolving.
No longer just a blunderbuss medium, TV is now the one that comes with the most sophisticated suite of options, from interactive, online and mobile tie-ins to merchandising. Even sponsorship, the oldest "beyond the spot" opportunity, is able to operate with more leeway than ever before.
But planning resource is a big issue on the agency side these days. During 2005, there were ferociously competitive pitches and rumbling rows about remuneration, with already tight agency margins coming under ever more severe pressures. That's why so many in the industry were heartened in the first weeks of the New Year to hear Jim Hytner, the marketing director of Barclays, say that the company will be putting an emphasis on creative media planning solutions in its forthcoming review.
He's hardly alone in that, Andrew Constable, the head of media at Coors Brewers, says. Advertisers are well aware of the extra demands that media fragmentation continues to make. He states: "Clients' demands are exactly the same as they've always been. Advertisers are always looking for better ways to target their consumers and engage with them."
But are they getting what they need from the mainstream media specialists?
Perhaps not, Jez Groom, a managing partner of Edwards Groom Sanders, argues.
He believes that the big media agencies have become internally fragmented, with single-discipline divisions even being given their own profit-and-loss responsibilities, which hardly makes them impartial when making client recommendations. He states: "The critical issue for me is whether they can be sufficiently objective and neutral. It's only when you have senior people - people who have been exposed to many different disciplines - looking at the business that they can see the extent to which different opportunities might be appropriate for the needs of a particular client and how those opportunities might be integrated."
Greg Turzynski, a partner at the communications planning agency Experience, tends to agree. "Big agencies are generally organised by specialism or resourced by individuals with a track record of operating in limited channels," he states. "This breeds bias into the communications process."
He adds that it's the media owners who are generally showing the way forward - they're far more clued up in general about issues such as media convergence. Jim Marshall, the chairman of Starcom UK, doesn't dispute that point - but, unsurprisingly, he takes issue with the notion that big agencies can be less than impartial.
In fact, he counters, the bigger players are the only ones able to guarantee delivery. He explains: "In a multi-platform environment, the issue is about how you take it on in terms of online strategy, interactivity, mobile - and, increasingly, right through to issues like merchandising. From our point of view, in order to deliver these, it's absolutely essential that there is greater integration between planning and buying. Unless you are talking directly to senior people at the broadcaster, you won't be aware of the possibilities inherent in some of these fast-evolving opportunities. It's not just a planning job but a planning-plus-executional job."
And he argues that, if an advertiser appoints several disconnected specialist agencies - a different one for each of, say, digital, direct and sponsorship - it becomes very hard to pull all those things together and decide on how to construct an integrated package. He adds: "For good ideas to work well and work well together, you have to be able to assess which ones are going to contribute and which are likely to turn out to be no more than stunts. You don't get that problem when there's an interface between planners and buyers within a single agency - the people who negotiate directly with media owners know exactly what it takes to get good ideas developed."
But advocates of the new generation of media-planning specialists tend to seize on this sort of statement as an admission of innate conservatism at the bigger agencies. As Groom puts it: "If an agency is absolutely defined by its buying scale and if it spends 70 per cent of its time (within the TV medium) buying and negotiating, then - with the best will in the world - it is going to be focused on the deal rather than its wider exploitation. The truth is that innovative media owners tend to feel they can make more progress with smaller, more motivated agencies."
So who's right? Actually, neither. Or both. We're in horses-for-courses territory here. It's a fine line, Constable concludes. He says it's certainly true that planning excellence is never a foregone conclusion - and sometimes you have to be more than a little careful in ensuring you get exactly what you need. He concludes: "Many of these (planning) challenges are not new to us and we have a tradition of finding the agencies who can help us meet them. We have been noticing something of a proliferation of specialist agencies - for instance, ones that focus on just digital. Their success might suggest some advertisers are not convinced that their main media agencies are able to provide the levels of expertise they need in those areas. That said, I'm not sure, in an era of media fragmentation, that we need fragmentation on the agency side, too."