Special Report: The US - The rise of media strategy

Client demand for more sophisticated media planning is driving change in the US. Last month, the Japanese car-maker Mitsubishi's North American subsidiary adopted a radical new approach to its advertising budget. It was a move that flew in the face of conventional media wisdom and one that was regarded by many in the US as heresy and by some as little short of commercial suicide.

Rather than commit three-quarters of next year's $160 million advertising budget to network television in the upfront auctions as it has always done, Mitsubishi announced its intention to shift half of that spend to national cable, syndicated and spot TV. According to Ian Beavis, Mitsubishi's senior vice-president of marketing, the company is also increasing its adspend in magazines by 50 per cent and is planning to devote more of its budget to the internet.

To European ears, "small advertiser reduces reliance on national TV" may seem more of an exercise in common sense than a story worth remarking upon. But such is the iron grip of network TV on media planning in the US that there it was worthy of note.

It is tempting to conclude that just as US creative output is often said to be crass and formulaic compared with its more polished European counterpart, US media is reactionary and predictable compared with the best European practice. The truth, of course, is that, in business, the commercial environment shapes methodologies.

In the UK, commercial airtime was traditionally in short supply, hence the need for a broader media palette, Alex Crowther, the chief executive of DaVinci, Mitsubishi's media planning agency, argues. However, like almost everything else in the land of plenty, network TV airtime has historically been so cheap and so abundant that until recently there was never any real need to consider alternatives. "This has created a knee-jerk presumption in favour of network TV," he says.

The outcome is that buying takes precedence over planning on many US media accounts. To make matters worse, the TV buying cycle generally starts six months or so before clients' marketing planning cycles. Crowther says the upshot is that a significant proportion of media campaigns are not just bought without much thought, but bought blind. "The upfront system means you often have to commit a large slice of your communications budget before you have even made your marketing plan, never mind your communications plan."

It is hard not to agree with Jon Wilkins, a founding partner at Naked Communications, that, when it comes to media strategy, "the US is a good ten years behind Europe". Wilkins' views, however, should be interpreted in the light of the fact that his company is in the process of setting up an operation in the US.

Other sources closer to the media agency market in the US say such an opinion is profoundly wrong. "I have never heard a proposition so absurd," Bill Wilson, a media and marketing strategy consultant, says. "The idea that billions of dollars are spent on advertising in the US with no media strategy is preposterous. It is little more than British conceit. Yes, media in the US tends to be driven by buying. Yes, media strategy in agencies is often confined to matters of execution. But to say there is no higher-order media strategy or planning is untrue. It does exist, but it is often done by clients."

As Wilson points out, the US advertising industry is a huge, lumbering beast, but one that has worked reasonably well so far. However, it is clear that things are beginning to change - with surprising speed.

Last month, David Verklin, the chief executive of Carat Americas, told a conference that one of the biggest challenges facing the US advertising industry was the shift from media planning to communications planning.

"In traditional media planning, the creative work comes first and the media buying comes second. With communications planning, that approach is reversed," he said.

But it also has to be said that agencies are not the drivers of this change; clients are. It is primarily to do with the declining strength of the network TV market, Rob Jayson, the director of strategic resources at Initiative North America, argues.

"The upfront system is breaking down," he states. "There has been a huge shift in adspend from network TV to cable TV. The demand for network TV is declining, but ratings are declining even faster. This means that the price is rising and we are getting worse programming."

So the move to more sophisticated media planning is being driven by clients concerned with getting better value from their advertising budgets by considering a more sophisticated combination of media.

It is not exactly new - the process started in 2000, when Unilever adopted the principles of "communications channel planning". But it was given a boost this year, when Procter & Gamble separated the media planning and buying of its $2.5 billion US business.

"We split media and communications planning for media buying because they are very different skillsets," Bernard Glock, the global media and communications manager at P&G, says. "We believe we need to connect with our consumers whenever and wherever they are most receptive. This requires deep consumer insight, so we need our agencies to take a more integrated and holistic approach across all consumer touch points."

Although he believes that the best of US practice is as good as anywhere, he says there are still too many pockets of surprisingly unprofessional media planning. "Not only have I seen 30-second ads produced without a media strategy, I have seen them subsequently aired without even a clearly defined target market," Glock says.

The US may have been slow off the mark when it comes to media and communication strategy, but, paradoxically, it is streets ahead of the UK and Europe when it comes to another flavour-of-the-month issue, advertiser-funded programming.

This is, in part, because of different regulatory frameworks, Jayson claims. "Europe has tended to take a high-minded, Reithian approach to such topics, while in the US, the virtually unlimited supply of airtime has been accompanied by unregulated creativity," he says. In other words, in US TV you can do pretty much what you like.

Proximity is also important. "The big studios are all here and there are close relationships between brands and studio prop-makers," Wilson says.

As a result, brands and media owners in the US have been coming up with ideas Europeans can only dream of. Initiative embedded AOL's running man brand icon directly into a number of programmes with an action theme, while Universal McCann and Coca-Cola's sponsorship of American Idol not only allowed it to create a red room - a Coke-branded green room - but also placed Coke on the judges' desks during their deliberations.

So while the US is catching up in the area of media strategy, albeit at clients' behest, regulatory restrictions in the UK mean the US is likely to stay way ahead in the branded-content game.