Media Forum: Could training be improved?

Should media agencies do more on the training front?

Mind the gap. That, arguably, was the most worrying conclusion to be taken away from last week's Venice Festival of Media. There seems to be an alarming distance between media agencies' perceptions of themselves and the cold reality.

On the one hand, we had senior figures debating, with high moral earnestness, the future of the media agency - notably that old chestnut about whether the media sector has any right to consider itself the senior marketing service.

And on the other hand, there was reality of the media agency in action. Its foot soldiers still have a worrying tendency to sleepwalk through turgid presentations designed to drive even the most patient of delegates to drink.

And, if you believe Sital Banerjee, the global media director of Philips, that's not the half of it. Banerjee launched a scathing attack on media agencies for not giving their staff the training they need.

He said: "When I interact with a cross-section of young people with funny titles around the world, I am often amazed and frustrated by their complete lack of knowledge."

He pointed out that some young planners are unable to talk in detail about basic notions such as reach and frequency, and don't really understand what's behind the software they use as a substitute for thinking.

Damning stuff. But does he have a point? Martin Sambrook, a partner at Billett International, observes that Banerjee has obviously hit a raw nerve. He adds: "I think all media agencies should ask themselves some important questions.

"For instance, does your agency recruit enough high-quality people to properly service your clients' needs? Does your agency have a formal training programme with objective measures of knowledge and performance, or is it generally informal and on-the-job training? Does your agency continually encourage and fund a staff training and development programme to raise the bar of knowledge at all levels? Does your agency encourage the attainment of formal business or marketing qualifications for its staff? Does your agency conduct regular - more than annual - surveys of client satisfaction with service levels? Does your agency have equally high levels of staff skills and knowledge across all the media disciplines? If your answer is no or not really to more than one of these questions, then Mr Banerjee probably has a point."

Simon Mathews, a founding partner of Rise Communications, tends to agree. He argues that it's a function of the fact that agency margins are under such pressure these days. And he adds: "It's also true that in this mechanised age, software does so much for you that you can lose sight of the reality of the process that lies behind the software."

Paul Phillips, the managing director of the AAR, points out that all the big network agencies have substantial training programmes in place. On the other hand, he concedes: "It's also true that there are people out there with fancy titles who haven't ever had to sweep the factory floor in terms of learning all about planning and buying and constructing schedules - not to the same degree of rigour that previous generations have.

"The question, then, is whether that matters. And, again, at one level, it does. Yet I'm sure there are those who will argue that you don't need to understand the mechanics to determine the strategy."

But Karen Blackett, a managing partner at MediaCom, confesses she's disappointed to hear Banerjee's views. She concludes: "We make every effort to ensure we can help people become rounded individuals. If you give people the ability to grow, you have more opportunities to keep hold of them - and that's good, both for us and our clients. It's true there's an increasing reliance on computers right across the industry, but if you're talking directly to a client, you can't run off and call things up on a computer all the time, you have to understand the fundamentals yourself. I think the industry takes training very seriously indeed."

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YES - Martin Sambrook, partner, Billett International

"This is one of the commonest complaints we receive from our clients. They tell us that they are not getting the standard of thinking or service that they need on their business, especially in digital."

YES - Simon Mathews, founding partner, Rise Communications

"(At media agencies), there are a few people at the top, lots at the bottom, but little in between. So, these days, there's an over-reliance on graduates who are thrust in front of clients far too quickly."

MAYBE - Paul Phillips, managing director, AAR

"There's a recognition these days that media is a blend of art and science. Agencies have people who understand science thoroughly. It's important that those who do and those who don't are able to work together."

NO - Karen Blackett, managing partner, MediaCom

"I am disappointed to read these views. We, as an agency, clearly take training very seriously - and not just in the media area. We make sure people are fully trained in the nuts and bolts, do broader industry training and things like life-coaching."