Media Forum: Is client media role at risk?

Are client media controllers losing their exalted status, Alasdair Reid asks.

Kimberly-Clark may find it tough finding a worthy successor to Oliver Cleaver, its media director across Europe. Cleaver resigned at the beginning of March, having decided that it was time to seek new challenges.

Kimberly-Clark says it is determined to find a replacement, but there aren't many in the business with Cleaver's depth and breadth of experience these days - he did begin his career in a full-service agency, after all. It's hard to image a genuinely big-hitter from the agency side of the fence wanting to join a client organisation at a time when there's a suspicion in some quarters of the industry that the media controller function could be diminishing in importance.

Arguably, the golden era of the client media controller was in the mid-90s, when advertisers across the market began turning on to the joys of centralisation. Media pitches became bigger, the relationship between individual brand teams and media agencies became more distant - the result being that media controllers grew in importance.

But this step-change also attracted the attentions of the procurement people, especially at the larger advertisers. And, arguably, over the past few years, the procurement star has been in the ascendancy. Procurement departments now control large parts of the agenda, especially when it comes to reviews, pitches and the award of accounts.

The ad industry will miss Cleaver if he decides to leave it behind. He is one of a handful of people who genuinely gets the big picture.

However, Bob Wootton, the director of advertising and media affairs at ISBA, doesn't believe that his departure is a sign of the times - he can't buy into the generalisation that advertisers have started taking their eye off the ball. He adds: "Where individual companies are concerned, the situation can wax and wane - and I've personally always found it curious that some companies don't seem to feel the need to have someone dedicated to media. I'd say, though, that in my experience at ISBA over a decade and more, the overall balance has remained more or less constant."

Andy Benningfield, the broadcast director at BJK&E, has done time as a media controller - at Camelot. He says that clients have had to adapt to rapid changes in the media market. He explains: "If, as a brand manager, your expertise is broadly in marketing rather than communications, then you will almost certainly need an expert eye to help you assess the merits of various possible media strategies. So I'd say there's a greater need (for client media controllers) than ever."

On the other hand, Martin Sambrook, a partner at Billett International, argues, the traditional idea of the single, omnipotent central media controller, pulling the various levers of control, is perhaps becoming outdated. He explains: "A good deal of the decision-making has shifted to other internal and external parties over time - for the good reason that the knowledge field has become more fragmented, diversified and specialised.

"Procurement professionals have an ever-increasing remit over media budgets, agency contracts and agency relationships. Some international media budgets have even seen de facto control handed to the agency central client team. Arguably, more control is required, but not (vested) in one individual. I don't think the role is dead or dying, but it is evolving into something different and more diverse."

That's not exactly how Linda Smith, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group UK, sees things, however. She concludes: "Media is clearly much more complicated these days. There are so many more consumer touchpoints to be aware of and so much more to understand at a time when marketing directors are being asked to look after so many more things. Yes, procurement is important - and everyone should be aware of return on investment as an issue. But that doesn't diminish the need for someone (within client organisations) with real communication expertise."

NO - Bob Wootton, director of advertising and media affairs, ISBA

"Absolutely not. This is an important role. Advertisers assess the part played by most aspects of marketing - so they should have someone of skill and standing with responsibility for media."

MAYBE - Andy Benningfield, broadcast director, BJK&E

"There are not as many media controllers around as there have been. All of our clients have excellent media controllers. But, across the market, I'm not sure client media people are as vocal or high profile as they were."

YES - Martin Sambrook, partner, Billett International

"As media budgets become increasingly fragmented into a myriad of digital media and channels across many markets and regions, the knowledge requirements are too detailed and specialised for one person."

NO - Linda Smith, chief executive, Starcom UK

"Advertisers need someone concentrating on the detail and making sure that the company is being led in the right direction where media is concerned. I don't think there's any reduction in expertise out there, and we've seen one of our clients, Premier Foods, increasing its levels of expertise."

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