Media: Double Standards - Helping advertisers achieve more and spend less

We meet two strategists who, in these uncertain times, are having to work even harder to ensure their clients get more bang for their buck.

STUART SULLIVAN-MARTIN - CHIEF STRATEGY OFFICER, MEDIAEDGE:CIA

- How has the downturn impacted on the strategic input you are providing for clients?

We're taking a fresh look and challenging ourselves and our clients. Are we being as creative, as rigorous and as opportunistic as we need to be given the new challenges many of our clients face? From the client's side, it's taking out any complacency in the process - we're getting more focused briefs. It's not an exaggeration to say we're slap- bang in the middle of a time when new cultural norms are taking root - whether that be the meaning of "value" in today's economy, or a new perspective on corporate trust.

- How much does your agency treat planning as a standalone function?

While "planning" demands some specific skill-sets, it's a big mistake to divorce it from the creative process of what we actually implement for our clients. At MEC, it's all about integrated thinking. We have an integrated planning team comprising senior planners, digital planners, researchers and some of our partnership marketing specialists. This group acts as a virtual team - sharing ideas and co-creating work - but is scattered about the agency and works directly with teams on client business.

- What work are you most proud of recently?

We have worked with Morrisons to engage local communities and recruit more than 85 per cent of primary schools into a programme to grow their own fruit and vegetables, an initiative delivering a significant sales uplift. For the first time, Wrigley is associated with added time within the English Premier League football - "Wrigley's 90+" - where stressed-out supporters look for last-minute goals and chew gum. And as part of a team working for the Department of Health and COI, we have just contributed to the successful achievement of the government target to reduce the number of smokers in England to 21 per cent or less by 2010.

- How transferable are your skills to other types of agency?

In my view, planning skills have never been more transferable. The boundaries between content, editorial and advertising are blurring, and many agencies have diversified their offer and are looking for more technology-inclusive, through-the-line, consumer-centric thinking.

- What differentiates media agencies right now?

One thing - agency culture. The culture of each agency dictates its approach to hiring talent, integration, research tools, technology, creativity - everything. While media agencies all sound the same in name, all clients have to do is meet the people and smell the culture.

- What's the most important skill you need in your role?

Uncover the central question as quickly as possible.

- If you weren't doing what you're doing now, what would be your alternative career?

At various times, I've wanted to be a scuba diver, a concert pianist, a teacher, a qualitative researcher and a fiction editor in a publishing house. My parents once told me they thought I was going to be a wartime news correspondent uncovering atrocities in third-world countries. Then, some years ago, a director at John Ayling & Associates told me I could drink Champagne every day if I wanted to in the media industry. My parents are very proud.

STEPHEN FARQUHAR - HEAD OF STRATEGY, ZENITHOPTIMEDIA

- How has the downturn impacted on the strategic input you are providing for clients?

It's a great challenge - spend less to achieve more. We're asked for greater proof of effect: more original thinking to stand apart, and there is generally more advice required as things are changing so quickly.

- How much does your agency treat planning as a standalone function?

An unexecuted plan isn't worth much. So even with strategy-only accounts, there's a strong accent on action and co-operation. That's what our open planning approach facilitates. Ariel's "turn to 30" work last year required smart inter-agency collaboration as much as it needed lone planning gumption.

- What work are you most proud of recently?

Most recently, the O2 team's work on "orgy of fun" Facebook groups and O2 Academies. Long-term, the Toyota team's "Aygo and T4" partnership - originally a brave move, as a big chunk of T4 viewers haven't even passed their test yet. But the commercial payback is significant. It's mainly stuff that had nothing to do with me: I'm just grateful they let me sit nearby.

- How transferable are your skills to other types of agency?

All we do is turn lots of information into something simple and actionable. There are other obvious reasons why so many media planners are popping up in creative agencies these days, but I've yet to see massive proof that we're applying our abilities to wider disciplines. Taking two different paths as examples, it would be nice to see more of us end up in, say, PR agencies or data consultancies.

- What differentiates media agencies right now?

There's not enough differentiation. Some agencies excel slightly in creativity, others in their application of client business data. The big opportunity is for the agency that systematically organises the latter to propel the former. That's what we're trying to do.

- What's the most important skill you need in your role?

The town of Leith, now attached to Edinburgh, has a one-word civic motto - persevere. Perseverance is an unfashionable quality, but it wins new business, gets big ideas through and keeps clients with you in the long run. All the good planners I've worked with have it in abundance.

- If you weren't doing what you're doing now, what would be your alternative career?

My wife's a teacher and I sometimes envy the (emotional) reward she gets from that. But before media, I pushed trolleys in Safeway for seven years, so I reckon I'd still be quite good at it.

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