Media agencies and the death of the golden goose

An anonymous former leader of a UK media agency says the time of plenty is over. Here's how it happened.

Media agencies and the death of the golden goose

I’ll tell my grandchildren that I was part of it. I witnessed the birth, growth and death of media agencies. They will be incredulous at the tales of derring-do and how quickly the beating commercial heart of the agency groups withered.

How could this have happened, they’ll ask? I’ll tell them about the determined, entrepreneurial and slightly renegade people who forged the industry in the 1980s and 1990s, took it to maturity in the 2000s and presided over its demise in the 2010s.

Back in the day, agency groups couldn’t believe their luck as these pioneers plundered the land of media owners to return with unheard-of margins. They were given their independence and flourished. All was well across the land. 

The clients brought in their first secret weapon – procurement "professionals", a tribe that knew the price of everything but the value of nothing

They ran rings around clients, who grasped at half-blown-up balloons to suffocate "other revenue" sources, only to see them pop up elsewhere. They knew the media guys were outsmarting them but were so easily distracted that they couldn’t see how they were doing this, let alone stop them. It was powerful sorcery and it ran unchecked as all remained healthy in adland.

The clients brought in their first secret weapon – procurement "professionals", a tribe that knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. They were incentivised by their employers to succeed in their own worlds while failing in the real one. They forced headline rates to unsustainably low levels but the resilient, increasingly grey-haired media folk outflanked them through their ingenuity and the shortfall was bridged.

We then entered the era where the grey-beards were starting to look expensive on the P&L. Their refusal to be micro-managed resulted in banishment to a land where they lived in comfort on the fruits of their labour. 

They were replaced by a new tribe – one that spoke convincingly of the new magic of digital, data and content. These newcomers worked cheaply, arriving with impeccable social-media profiles and well-honed skills in soundbite management. But the big bosses hadn’t established whether these new arrivals knew about media or could run businesses so the storm clouds gathered.

Sensing weakness, the pesky clients started to get the upper hand, especially when they broke all the rules by bringing in the sniffer dogs. The groups had become hooked on the media contributions, but had become careless. Hidden treasures hadn’t been well-enough concealed by the new breeds and the game was up. Cries of "It wasn’t us, guv!" were heard across the land.

The end, when it came, was swift. The media disciples returned to their original owners, who mourned the passing of the old order. Nostalgia for the previous commercial gains achieved during the period – now known as the Time of Plenty – was palpable. None missed them more than the group chief executives, who were below target by unprecedented amounts. They consoled themselves with talk (through gritted teeth) of the benefits of a "new land", where creative was joined with media once again. The future was uncertain but would inevitably have data and content at its core.

I was part of the Time of Plenty. And now it’s over. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed almost every minute.


The author is a former leader of a UK media agency