MEDIA FORUM: Is the future bright for client media controllers?

John Blakemore, one of the first client media controllers, is now retiring. How much has the role evolved over the years, Alasdair Reid asks.

John Blakemore admits it's sometimes scary when he looks back, but he's been working on the Beecham's media business for more than 30 years. The relationship began at Masius Wynne Williams when he joined in 1971 and continued to flourish when he moved to Ogilvy & Mather. And when O&M lost its Beecham's accounts to Grey in one of the early media centralisations, Blakemore consolidated his own position on the business not by jumping ship to Grey but by going straight to the source itself, joining what was then SmithKline Beecham as its media controller.

He wasn't the first person to bring agency media department expertise to the marketing department of a major advertiser but he was one of the first to be given the task on a formal, dedicated and exclusive basis. This new post was a response to the sort of consolidation pressures in the economy as a whole that had created SmithKline Beecham in the first place and ultimately GlaxoSmithKline.

The group's consolidated ad budgets needed looking after in a more structured way - and what's more, the centralisation of its media into one supplier meant that its media partner was no longer subject to competitive pressures.

So one of the requirements was to make sure that the promised benefits of centralised media were actually being delivered.

Things, we assume, have moved on since then. After all, Blakemore has lived through interesting times, witnessing the rise of the media auditor on the one hand and the growing involvement of the procurement director on the other.

So, in the week that Blakemore retires, it's perhaps time to assess the status of the client media controller. Are client media people needed more now than ever before? Will we see more of them, and with more power, or is the role being squeezed by the procurement people from inside and media auditors from outside?

Blakemore reckons he's been very lucky - his employers have been consistent in their understanding of the importance of media. But yes, he says, the function will continue to grow and evolve. "When you're actually in the job it's sometimes difficult to get a perspective on exactly how it has evolved, but it's true that in the early days it involved a lot of number-crunching. It was all about good price, bad price. Now it's more about facilitating media's full role in the marketing environment," he says.

Martin Sambrook, a global account director at Media Audits, agrees - and it's essential it does evolve, he adds: "Now the media function is allied to the wider needs of corporate strategy. There's an understanding about how media can deliver to the bottom line - and not just because a few quid have been shaved off the cost-per-thousand rates paid."

Sambrook says that the client media function is possibly at its most valuable when a company is aligning its media relationships on a global basis. When that is happening, the media controller is able to balance corporate demands for financial results with brand stewardship. That's a role that should become more important. It's something that most organisations will need more as they go for more single-sourcing on an international basis, he argues.

In fact, the astonishing thing isn't the fact that the media controller role has continued to grow in stature, but that there are still some major companies that haven't recognised this. One or two substantial advertisers have a scandalously low understanding of media issues.

Sambrook says that's actually sometimes down to internal politics. "It's true that up to now its evolution has been a haphazard thing. It's a role that tends not to fit into the neat lines and divisions of corporate structures. And the nature of the role is such that the person in that role doesn't necessarily have a specific power base, especially when there is an international dimension. It calls for someone with very particular diplomatic and political skills," he maintains.

And some clients have found it impossible to see beyond raw numbers.

Martin Bowley, the chief executive of Carlton Sales, admits he remains astonished that some big companies still haven't woken up. "In an age of agency deals, the role played by the likes of Blakemore in a fast-moving commercial world is essential and probably more important than that played by the marketing director. Those who employ media controllers are closer to the opportunities and I think it's significant that GlaxoSmithKline has chosen to replace John with a professional of Andy Bolden's standing rather than consigning this function to the procurement bin."

Mark Craze, the chief executive of Aegis Media UK and Ireland, touches on this factor too. "Media controllers have had to contend with the explosion of new media channels. The days of focusing on four or five media opportunities has long gone. They've also become more global in their responsibilities. Like all of us, they have had to deal with the inexorable rise of procurement people. I imagine that's been as big a challenge for them as for us," he states.

But perhaps the most pertinent question of all is whether they are instrumental in getting the most out of their agencies. Do they inspire agencies or terrify them? "I guess the only people who can answer that are the agencies themselves," Blakemore says, "but I'd like to think they react positively.

I'd like to think they can perform even better when they're dealing with someone who's on the same wavelength. But, yes, it's true that on another level they know they can't get away with anything. Ultimately, though, I'd like to think that media controllers get more out of the agencies working with them."

Some will tell you privately that there have been a few real horror stories down the years. People so charmless and unrelenting that top talent have left agencies rather than work on their accounts. But they, it seems, comprise a small minority. Most are up there with the likes of Blakemore.

Jerry Hill, the chief executive of Initiative Media, says: "The really good ones both inspire you and put the fear of God up you in equal measure. The best ones demand good value as well as enhancing the whole agency-client process. It often varies according to the size and nature of the client. With smaller companies, they tend to became less focused and became Jacks of all trades."

Craze tends to agree. "No client is perfect and we don't expect them to be easy on us. We look for them to be hard but fair and, realistically, that's the most we can hope for. Tough but unfair is a real nightmare.

But the thing is that these guys tend to come from agencies themselves, they know their stuff and they tend to get respect. They also realise that the agency team has to be motivated so that people want to work on their business, not run from it," he explains.