Close-Up: Live Issue - Evolution or extinction: the fate of media giants

Investment and innovation are key for media groups ready to address an ever-changing consumer culture.

From tiny and distinctly dodgy beginnings in the US in the mid-60s, the media agency world has come a long way. Those early beginnings were based largely on opportunism rather than professionalism, but interestingly, they thrived because of the reactionary, slow-moving agencies. That bit hasn't changed, but the rest has - dramatically.

Until only three years ago, the key business trends were increasingly intense competition, driven by globalisation, and technological change. Complexity, speed of change, increasing transparency and pricing have been the key issues, and agencies have been pressurised by these as much as any other suppliers. (Note that the professions have not been under the cosh in the same way, and agencies continue to be frustrated by their perceived role by clients as "suppliers" and not "business partners".)

The rapid consolidation of media agencies from 1998 reflected this. The client thinking went: "Global competition necessitates global suppliers - as comprehensive a range of media services as possible, in as many places as possible at the lowest price."

Clients in search of a global campaign need only visit one of six holding companies. With very minor exceptions, there is not one company outside the big six credibly offering media planning and buying on a global basis - just about every medium-sized player has been bought and absorbed by these big players.

There is now no middle ground - it has been fished to extinction by the big groups. But does this matter? After all, there are only four accountancy practices capable of providing a global service - is the world disadvantaged by that?

However, in the past three years, there has been a further vitally important change of direction and pace. I remember in 2000 writing about "the consumer as editor" and their increasing ability to avoid our messages; we talked of "viral" and "buzz" marketing. But underneath it, we always felt, if we were smart, we could still control things.

With first blogging and now social marketing, the speed and scale of change has shocked everyone, from the most reactionary to the smartest of digerati. It's not just the well-publicised, huge numbers now enjoyed by MySpace and Bebo, there is a continuing rapid evolution of newcomers. For example, Piczo has grown eightfold, from 1.2 million to 10.5 million users in the past year. Last.fm has grown from three million to 15 million unique users in a year. Since March 2005, Wayn.com has grown from less than 50,000 users to seven million.

But it's more than just the numbers, it's the degree of engagement, with these new communities spending hours on these sites.

Consumers, particularly younger ones, are now shaping brands; increasingly, they will build and destroy them, too. Clients' and agencies' instinctive desire to attempt to maximise control over brands and their communication is rapidly becoming dangerous.

Assuming social networking is a trend and not a fad, as it migrates across all platforms, many of those in marcoms will soon find themselves past their sell-by date. That may sound over-dramatic, but the industry is notoriously slow to react. The world's first ad agency media specialist was started in 1972 (OK, I was much too early), Zenith made a much better job of it in 1988, but it wasn't until 1998 that the ad industry finally embraced the concept of standalone media specialists. Of course, the industry has speeded up since then, but it's not moving nearly fast enough to understand and influence a growing chunk of its clients' consumers and customers.

So, what skills are needed? Modern agencies need fleetness of foot and have to be able to move quickly to keep up: no dithering, and ditch those committees. They need to be agile. Things are going to change rapidly and unpredictably, so they must be prepared to work in different ways with different people at different times. Fearlessness is also key; modern agencies will make mistakes. It's unavoidable because there will be no precedent for much of what they do. Those who use research for support and not illumination will fall over because industry-style media research will not be able to keep up.

Consumers' attitudes and needs have never changed faster, particularly in the area of communications, and the choices available to them continue to multiply. Really understanding customers and prospects has never been more important. The attention given to market segmentation by many clients and agencies is amazingly poor given this situation.

Young people (the smart ones) are much better positioned to get all this, so listen to them and empower them. Ditch the hierachy and the silos, too: the consumer is now, irritatingly, muddling brand and communications together, so you'd better, too, otherwise you won't understand what's going on.

Similarly, why do we still hear this rubbish of "above the line" and "below the line"? There is no "line": if there is one, it's "online" that is increasingly occupying consumers.

The successful organisation of the future will be stuffed full of people with enquiring minds, really keen to know what's going on and why - and not just in their own area. They will appreciate that to thrive in this confusing, complex world they must be listening and learning all the time. So, training and development of people - at all levels - is a priority. And it will cost - not just money, but time. That fast-growing section of executives who don't know the difference between what's urgent and what's important will be found out and fail.

Comfort with ambiguity is the great skill of the entrepreneur: you don't have the comfort of knowing what tomorrow brings; you can't hang on to what's on your job specification. Increasingly, you need to be a wagon train driver and not an engine driver, for someone may have taken the rails up overnight.

Are the media agencies equipped? For all their size and success, they are labouring under some major handicaps.

They are seen to be relatively undifferentiated by clients, who have then been happy to unleash their procurement departments on them. So, despite the fact that clients say they want smart, innovative thinking to help with their issues in the highly complex world of communications, the majority buy media as a commodity. This hardly encourages investment or innovation. Value in any market is based on a blend of quality and price, and more marketing clients need to stop abrogating their responsibility to procurement, because that can only create a dangerous imbalance in favour of price.

Connected to this issue is the media agencies' increasing reliance on surcommissions (volume over-riders from media owners that are usually hidden from the client). Some mistake this for an ethical issue, but in fact, it is a professional one: most media agencies strive to be regarded as trusted advisors to their clients, but this will never be wholly convincing while the objectivity of any recommendations can be questioned when there are hidden incentives to influence those proposals.

Looking at the skills required in this new era, it's clear that the very size of the modern global media agency (with typically 5,000-10,000 employees) has become something of a handicap.

However, all is not bleak. There is some real talent tucked in those media agencies; it is the structure and, sometimes, the attitudes of their leaders that get in the way. This doesn't have to be so; when the world's largest packaged goods company, Procter & Gamble, can really involve and empower several hundred-thousand consumers as brand advocates on a range of its products, that's a lesson for all of us.

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