STUCK IN THE MIDDLE? As more and more media owners aim to go direct to the client, are agencies being left out of the loop? Harriet Marsh finds out who’s getting the best deal from client sales teams

These days it is a rare media owner that doesn’t have a department called business development or client services or occasionally - and perhaps most truthfully - client sales. And as these departments expand, they change the relationship between media owner, client and agency.

These days it is a rare media owner that doesn’t have a department

called business development or client services or occasionally - and

perhaps most truthfully - client sales. And as these departments expand,

they change the relationship between media owner, client and agency.

At News Group Newspapers, former Halifax media manager Stef Clarke has

been brought in as head of client marketing to lead a team that

describes its remit as ’selling solutions rather than media space’.

Virgin Radio has also been on a client sales recruitment drive and Clear

Channel International is going one step further, recruiting an

international sales boss whose remit will be to pitch pan-European

opportunities direct to major clients.

Of course, client sales is not a new phenomenon. Most major broadcasters

and newspaper groups have long realised the value of establishing a

direct link with their clients. Yet as media proliferation increases and

the media market become increasingly competitive, the signs are that

media companies are putting greater emphasis on the development of a

proactive direct relationship.

’We need to understand the corporate and marketing objectives of the

client if we are to really make a difference,’ says Clarke. ’Sometimes

even the agencies find this hard. There is a lot of good advertising out

there and effective use of press and TV, but there is an awful lot that

doesn’t use a medium to its best effect. By communicating directly we

hope to improve the situation.’

But where does this leave the media agency? Is the formerly happy

triumvirate of media owner, agency and client under threat?

’We always make sure the agency is involved, unless the client wants to

deal direct,’ says Clarke. ’The idea of client sales or servicing is not

to squeeze the agency out but to ensure the client gets to see the full

breadth of what we’ve got to offer and how it can be best utilised to

its advantage.’

His view is backed up by other media owners: ’We don’t view it as client

sales but rather as mutually beneficial marketing,’ says Justin Farnan,

head of brand at Metro, which is currently developing its client


’It is not about what we can deliver in terms of audience, it is about

what we can do together.’

The no-lose deal

Asked to pinpoint a deal where a direct relationship with the client has

worked to the benefit of all concerned, Farnan cites a recent tie-up

with Carphone Warehouse: ’This was a combination of paid-for space and

editorial that offered readers a free WAP telephone on which they had to

pay line rental for a year. Everyone benefited, the advertisers from the

exposure, our readers from a great offer and Metro because we had the

addresses of all those who responded to use in our marketing.’

Perhaps Metro’s biggest success with this strategy has been its work

with Virgin and MGM to formulate media promotions for Virgin One, Virgin

Phones and Virgin Wines.

The idea is that by involving the media company in a direct discussion

with the client as well as with the agency, an ad hoc media strategy

will evolve. These are often far removed from the traditional ratecard

or cost-per-thousand negotiation that has long formed the foundation of

the media deal.

Yet while Farnan remains adamant about the continuing importance of the

agency, he does suggest that direct contact with the client allows for

more open discussions and can produce more sophisticated media


’Without a shadow of a doubt, the fundamental keystone is still the

agency contact,’ he says. ’However, clients are more commercially minded

and media savvy now. They want more for their money than merely to buy

slots and space. Unless a client has a greater depth of contact with a

media owner, they are not going to know for themselves what is


But this implies agencies are not always up to speed on all the latest

developments, which is sure to go down badly at media agencies who

stress their broad knowledge of both their clients’ business and the

wider media environments.

However, Clarke says his experience as a client supports Farnan’s


’Traditional sales teams talk to buyers who have very fixed agendas,’ he

says. ’But media could be better used by most advertisers. As a client I

used to hate having to pay extra production costs, but sometimes it is

better to produce ads that are totally right for the environment than to

come up with a generic campaign that saves money.’

Under pressure

Ever tactful, Clarke disputes suggestions that this puts the

relationship with agencies under pressure.

’I think agencies may give the impression they are pissed off,’ he


’But they are under pressure from low margins. If the media owner is

genuinely providing better solutions and the media agency is still part

of that, then everyone wins.’

Agency players certainly stress that it is vital they are kept informed.

’Anything that helps preach change in the media or television market to

my clients is a good thing,’ says Richard Brinkman, head of sponsorship

at BBJ. ’Another set of ideas is all grist to the mill. What I do mind

is when I am not kept in the loop.’

This is backed up by Mike Segrue, managing director at Poster Publicity

International: ’We don’t have an issue with media owners going direct to

our clients or our agencies, as long as they are marketing the medium


Yet there are obviously tensions. For a start, it is impossible not to

be a little protective when it comes to both clients and margins. ’We

must not lose sight of the fact that it is the media owner’s job to

maximise yields and margins,’ says Segrue. ’If they could exclude

someone from the equation to achieve this, they would do so.’

Perhaps a greater area of conflict, however, is the relative importance

of owner and agency when it comes to developing media strategies for the

client. Everyone concerned tends to talk up their own role and downplay

the role of the other side.

’It is not a helpful starting point to assume media agencies are

stifling new ideas,’ says Brinkman. ’Agencies do not exist just to

batter media owners on rates - they have a sound logistical and

strategic role.’

Mark Patterson, managing director of BJK&E, suggests it is par for the

course for agencies to feel protective of clients, although he has never

known this become a major issue. Nevertheless, he remains sceptical

about the importance of client sales departments: ’I think they are an

expensive luxury in most sectors,’ he says. ’What you find they are

really doing is pressing the flesh. They aren’t selling, their role is

often hard to define. They generally have a marketing role that is

sometimes limited to a sort of after-sales service.’

Patterson believes the growth in client sales is a spin-off of the

current ad boom: ’In times of recession this will be the first area to

be cut,’ he predicts. Yet despite his slightly scathing comments,

Patterson is still keen to make any direct contact between his client

and a media owner work to the full advantage of all concerned. The

agency now operates a service called Prologue. If a media rep is going

to see one of BJK&E’s clients, they are sent a dossier with relevant

information, facts and figures about the client. ’Otherwise it can be a

waste of everyone’s time,’ says Patterson.

No easy access

The media world is full of blag and media owners like to give the

impression that direct access to clients comes easily. Yet agencies

suggest clients rarely have time to see enough of agencies, let alone

schedule meetings with media owners.

’Our clients rarely have the time to forge the sort of relationships you

need with media owners to do the best deals,’ says Jason Goodman,

managing director at BMP Interaction. ’They often have far more

important business concerns than building relationships with digital

media players.’

Bearing this in mind, how much do client sales departments really


Robert Black, UK sales director at, cites a tie-up with

Adidas - in which Adidas sports kit is now sold on’s

e-commerce site - as an example of where direct contact with the client,

via the agency Pixel Park in Germany, proved beneficial.

Yet he also defends the long-term nature of the job: ’The client sales

role is not a quick fix, it is long term. It is about making everyone

aware of the opportunities available.’

Meanwhile, Clarke can provide a variety of examples where News Group has

worked with client partners on tailored media solutions. These include

Guinness’s tie-in with The Times and The Sunday Times to promote its

sponsorship of the rugby World Cup, and BT’s use of Times Newspapers to

launch Time-Smart, its web service for Soho workers.

Undoubtedly, clients are reaping the benefits of a more sophisticated

approach to media planning. Yet at the heart of the tension between

media owners and agencies over the rise of client sales department is

the question of where the credit lies. No agency is going to admit a

media owner can add anything to the strategic mix.

For example, Goodman suggests his agency’s specialist knowledge,

strategic experience and commercial clout means that few BMP Interaction

clients need to deal direct with media owners.

’But I’m under no illusions,’ says Goodman. ’The only reason we are

fundamental to the relationship is that we move the process forward

faster, initiate business relationships and add to dialogue. If we

couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t be involved.’

In today’s media environment, in which media owners find themselves

facing increasing competition, it seems only natural that they should

want to forge direct relations with clients. At its best this is a

win/win situation.

The client has more people working out an optimum media solution for its

brand and the media owner and agency are left to bask in the associated


Yet for both media company and agency, it means there is more pressure

to be on top of the game. ’Anyone who takes their business for granted

in the digital space - and can’t foresee a time in the future when there

might not be a need for them - is foolish,’ says Goodman. It is a

warning that might as easily be applied to those involved in traditional



Stef Clarke heads a business development team of eight at News Group

Newspapers . Yet while the average age of a typical media sales team is

often mid- to late-20s, Clarke’s business development team has an

average age of around 40.

This is no coincidence. Age brings experience and in-depth knowledge,

which Clarke believes is vital in this area of the business.

’You need people with credibility when it comes to meeting the client,

which means experience,’ says Clarke.

The ability to successfully develop business opportunities can depend on

developing a good rapport with the client. For example, Clarke stresses

it is no good going to a meeting and giving the client the impression

you’ve come to pitch a hard sell.

’Yes, people need to be able to sell to do the job, but selling in a way

that involves adapting and listening,’ he says. ’You need to be working

to the same end, to solve his problems and reach his objectives.’

This means a confrontational approach is out - even if the client is

being confrontational. Furthermore, you need a breadth of knowledge

across all media and an in-depth knowledge of your own medium that will

allow you to think through possibilities on the spot.

Justin Farnan at Metro suggests this is at the heart of what is required

from a client sales or marketing professional. ’It is not about sales

and a direct result, but about ideas,’ he says. ’It requires someone who

is clever and enthusiastic, who has the back-up of the organisation and

knows their medium. Clients are commercially minded about their brands

and you must know as much about your product as you know about your

commercial realities - otherwise there is total confusion.’

As for the structure of a client sales operation, Lee Roberts, sales

director at Virgin Radio, says: ’For the first three years we divided up

clients by business category, now we divide them by agency portfolio.

This works better and means we are building strong teams with the agency

effectively part of that team.’

Roberts also believes it is important to have enough staff to do the job

properly. He says: ’Ten years ago, most of the budget went into TV and

press. Now, to do the job effectively and achieve standout, it may be

valuable to have more workers thinking about media and additional people

to work with the agency. So we’re hiring more client and strategic sales

people, and on the other side the client is sourcing more people for its

media solutions.’