Media Forum: Should agencies own content?

Is it risky for agency groups to pursue production partnerships, Alasdair Reid asks.

Last week, WPP bought a 6.8 per cent share in Media Rights Capital - a US company that finances the production of film, TV, mobile and broadband internet content. Not such a strange move for a marketing communications company to make, you might argue.

The whole issue of advertiser-funded programming may be not quite as fashionable (or passionately debated) as it was a few years back, but it's still there on the agenda for most major advertisers and their agencies. So what harm can there be for an ad network to forge closer links with the film production and finance community? Who knows what opportunities could be delivered to other operating units within the group if you happen to be at the right place at the right time.

But this isn't WPP's only recent foray into film and television finance. A few weeks back, it also took a similar stake in The Weinstein Company, an outfit far closer to the business end of the Hollywood production system.

Founded in 2005 by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who'd previously been prime movers in the Miramax Films division of the Disney Corporation, The Weinstein Company counts Paul Newman and Robert Redford among its advisers and has already produced a string of modest successes, including Transamerica (starring Felicity Huffman) and Mrs Henderson Presents (Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins).

This surely takes us a very long way from the ad-funded content scenario. These are serious players. They're hardly hanging around kicking their heels waiting for a WPP client to come up with a proposal. In fact, now that the group is involved, won't the temptation be to work this business the other way? Isn't it possible that clients might find themselves shoe-horned into properties that aren't quite right for them?

Not really, Irwin Gotlieb, the worldwide chief executive of Group M, responds. He points out that these can be profitable investments without any client involvement at all. But he is surprised that anyone these days can question the involvement of agencies and advertisers in media content creation. "There is a history of agency involvement going back many years," he says.

In pursuing the interests of clients, it would be irresponsible not to explore involvement on the supply side of content creation, he explains - and there is a mutuality of interest here. Content creators are equally keen to appreciate the advertiser mindset. "There is plenty of investment funding out there. No-one needs WPP for its money, but they might need WPP for the insight and the understanding of deal structures that it might bring."

It sounds innocuous, but isn't it worrying for broadcasters to contemplate a future in which all of their programming comes with strings attached? No, Kelly Williams, the sales director of five, a broadcaster that has not been afraid to explore innovative ways to finance the acquisition of content, responds.

And that, he suggests, is the point - broadcasters already have a robust and sophisticated approach to negotiations with content suppliers. And they're more than aware of the dangers of letting themselves be bullied. He says: "If a large agency group invests in programming, then that might ensure that broadcasters will get the quality they want. We have to see it as a positive thing."

Iain Jacob, Starcom's chief executive for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, agrees that it's perhaps inevitable that we'll see both clients and their agencies finding ways of getting closer to content. But you can't ignore the risks. "It is easy to be seduced by this world - particularly the Hollywood aspect of it all. There are other ways for the major advertising groups to get close to content. I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that this is just a part of a far larger game when it comes to ensuring that clients get access to the right sort of content," he says.

James Wildman, the managing director of ids, would agree with much of that - and he concurs with Williams when he says broadcasters need not feel threatened. "In fact," he adds, "in the future, I think we'll find media agencies trading content in all sorts of ways. Yes, it's true that you can see how it might add difficulties to conversations in the future - if a big media buyer says you can only get access to a certain piece of content if you give access to their advertisers on their terms, then it might make for a rather one-sided conversation. But it's inevitable that media agencies will seek to explore this sort of area."

YES - Irwin Gotlieb, worldwide chief executive, Group M

"If we only had influence over demand, without getting involved in supply, that would be irresponsible, especially as it relates to the interests of our clients. It's important to have a seat at the table."

YES - Kelly Williams, sales director, five

"We want advertisers to advertise in our programmes and they want to be in the very best environments. I can't see a problem if an agency group of significant size and global reach wants to invest in good quality programming."

MAYBE - Iain Jacob, chief executive, Starcom EMEA

"The route WPP is taking seems smart in theory, though I suspect the reality will be more challenging. They're investing in investment companies and that's probably the closest thing to a gamble a group like WPP will take."

MAYBE - James Wildman, managing director, ids

"From WPP's point of view, there's a balance between sticking to your knitting and diversifying. For every creative hit, there are at least ten turkeys. From our point of view, the ultimate sanction is to say 'no thanks'."

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