Feature

After taking a battering, media agencies are now fighting back

It has become almost fashionable to give media agencies a hard time. In fact, there's a theory that the darkest days of the recession last year represented the end of an era for a sector that was born in the 70s, flourished in the boom years of the 80s and came to maturity in the 90s.

Times change, business structures evolve and, for media agencies, so the theory goes, the dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on. Because, of course, 2009 was not a good year for the sector's image, pride, or sense of self worth.

It was a year when media agencies were bullied by the procurement directors of their major clients. And if the nature of the bullying was sobering, the nature of the capitulation was shocking. For it was the year of the Dutch auction - an onslaught of mega media pitches in which agencies vied desperately to undercut each other.

They seemingly contrived to turn the clock back 30 years or more. A discipline that had hauled itself up by its bootstraps - and had set its sights on a seat at the top table in a strategic consultancy role - was dumped right back on its derriere and told to go and make itself useful by fetching and carrying the odd bit of media inventory.

Thus, for some observers, it's no surprise to see the US trade body for marketing professionals, the CMO Council, arguing that agencies (and in particular media ones) are not keeping up with the pace of change in the digital sphere. "Continuous production, packaging, delivery and tracking of fresh, relevant multimedia web content requires new skills, technologies and management systems not offered by traditional agencies," a recent CMO Council report states. Even more damningly, it adds: "Agencies are outsiders to these processes and lack share of voice or credibility."

Nor is it uncommon to hear commentators arguing that, seeing as how media agencies have misplaced their sparkle, media owners are the better placed to offer more exciting types of creative and lateral thinking. This was certainly a common response to a new type of UK operator called The Third Way, which seeks to create a home for itself in the triangular space defined by the conventional relationship between media owner, agency and client.

To cap it all, consider the programme for this year's Media 360 conference. Day one promises a debate based on the question "Do Advertisers Need Media Agencies?"; day two offers the thoughts of three eminent creatives on "bridging the divide" - getting creative and media to work more closely together.

Strange to relate, then, that the leading media agency lights are more militantly confident and optimistic than ever. Yes, they argue, 2009 was a low point, but it was so low they now have an opportunity to declare a Year Zero. The whole industry has an opportunity to reinvent itself from the ground up, and media agencies are exceptionally well placed to participate in that.

As Iain Jacob, the EMEA chief executive of Starcom MediaVest (and the agency's global president of innovation), puts it: "We're entering a new era for innovation that redefines what innovation is. We're witnessing a marketing renaissance, and a media renaissance is a part of that. Companies are learning to lead again. They realise they need to be braver."

Colin Gottlieb, the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group EMEA, agrees: "Marketers have no option but to grow the top and bottom lines by taking profitable market share or creating new profitable markets. In other words, by creating truly innovative and effective marketing programmes - all of which takes hard work and real competence. Put simply (the old client question) 'how much can you save us?' will be replaced with 'how much can you make for us?'"

Interestingly, some on the more radical fringes of the media agency scene argue that if anything has been irreparably broken during the recession, it's the 50s advertising model - the one where "creative" people devise ads, and the question of how to disseminate them to the masses is asked later.

These people argue it is they, rather than their creative agency cousins, who will be best placed to sell themselves as the leading edge when the economy enters the next phase of recovery and marketing finally evolves beyond the advertisement. They also argue, naturally, that the current generation of senior managers (technocrats, they maintain, who lack passion or true insight) will have to go.

That will sound like dangerous talk to many. But even the likes of Gottlieb will admit that there will be casualties, not just on the agency side of the business, but among clients who fail to raise their game. He says the central issue in all this will be the data revolution: "The Economist recently said mankind created 150 exabytes (a billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. In 2010, estimates put this year's output at 1,200 exabytes. This has had a huge effect on determining productivity."

Gottlieb adds: "The convergence of the recession with the dramatic rise in digital usage means it will soon be about how we spot patterns and extract useful information to create winning strategies."

Jacob agrees. Companies with a different attitude to data can be braver, deploy more quickly and separate themselves from the herd, he believes.

"There's an opportunity for marketing and communications generally to switch to a position where the goal is genuinely to serve the consumer while still showing some leadership by predicting what they might want in the future," Jacob says. "And we can achieve that through a more creative interpretation of data."

As an example of this, he points to Starcom MediaVest's recent work targeting younger consumers for BlackBerry (see box). He also argues that the industry has to grasp - as leading technology companies clearly have - the potential of "open source" philosophies. Ideas, strategies and the work itself should all evolve iteratively through a collaborative process that no-one can expect to own.

For Dave Trott, the creative director of CST (and one of the Media 360 panel members who will debate this topic at the conference), this is central. He argues it is too simplistic to ask: "How can media agencies become more creative?"

He concurs with Jacob's view of progress through an iterative, collegiate approach, where everyone feels empowered to move ideas forward. As he puts it: "It's interesting to see what happens on a pitch when people from (supposedly different disciplines) get together and come up with new and original ideas. But then the account is won and they all want to do things separately - and it's not just a media agency or a creative agency problem, it's everyone's problem.

"You'll find a client going to the media agency and telling it that the brand needs a quick uplift in sales. And the media agency says: 'You've got enough money for TV.' So the client says: 'OK, we'll do that then.' No-one's thinking about how they can outsmart the competition. We're back in the rut that everyone moves along."

Trott concludes: "If you separate media it becomes just a supplier - and fragmentation is the problem we are all suffering from these days. There's not enough synergy. We should be concentrating on more overlap, not less."

MORRISONS AND MEDIAEDGE:CIA

When Morrisons asked Mediaedge:cia to promote its "Fresh Choice for You" proposition, it devised the idea that to appreciate fresh food, you need to get your hands dirty.

It then created Let's Grow, a "groundbreaking" (geddit?) programme to help children grow fruit and vegetables - children redeemed vouchers at Morrisons for gardening equipment they could use at school.

The programme was promoted by a two-tier campaign encouraging teachers and consumers to register their interest online. It was fronted by the TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin and supported by the relevant government departments.

In creating a sub-brand for Morrisons, the agency had to ensure that the Let's Grow name, logo and creative identity would sit comfortably alongside the supermarket's existing image. The name Let's Grow was proposed as it was suggestive of what the scheme delivered (gardening equipment), while the tone of voice was inviting and inclusive.

At the time of the programme's development, Morrisons' advertising, created by Delaney Lund Knox Warren, already featured Gavin - and with his gardening credentials, he was deemed the ideal choice to front the campaign. A photoshoot at a school resulted in pictures of Gavin and children getting their hands dirty; these, with the logo and name, formed the initiative's core identity. The images were used in all communications, from in-store to direct marketing. They also featured in TV ads and online activity (created by Candi).

One of the challenges was engaging teachers and, ultimately, recruiting participating schools. MEC achieved this by identifying schools located within ten miles of a Morrisons store (to ensure they could easily participate in the voucher collection). It then targeted these schools with a DM campaign that included a "welcome pack".

Let's Grow proved to be a success. More than 18,000 schools registered to take part - a 300 per cent increase on the initial target. Eighty-four per cent of these schools went on to place an order for equipment, and tools worth a total of £3.2 million were subsequently delivered.

At the IPA Effectiveness Awards in November 2009, the campaign won the Grand Prix, a Gold Award and a gong in the Best Integration category.

The judges said the campaign transformed children's understanding of fresh produce and has been integrated into the national curriculum; it also boosted Morrisons' profits.

GALAXY AND MEDIACOM

Some agencies, not least MediaCom, believe that genuine consumer understanding and insight are fundamentally important starting points for a creative approach to media. And there's no better example of this than the way the agency helped Galaxy to outmanoeuvre Cadbury's "gorilla" (supposedly one of the biggest advertising success stories of the age) and achieve its biggest-ever market share.

Reading is the leading leisure activity for women, and what better way to unwind at the end of the day than with a good book and a bar of chocolate? MediaCom decided to demonstrate this - and build an association between Galaxy and this moment of female indulgence - by rewarding consumers with a good read. It created the "Galaxy Irresistible Reads" promotion, where every buyer would have the chance to win a free book.

One million books were up for grabs, making this Galaxy's biggest-ever promotion. Not only that, but the books were Galaxy-branded and featured Galaxy-themed bookmarks. This meant that these promotional prizes effectively became a new medium for agency and client - one that would sit in the handbags or on the bedside cabinets of the target audience, and be passed around between friends and family.

A Galaxy panel selected the top ten "irresistible reads" and the agency then formed a partnership with publishing houses and authors, giving it access to interviews and book synopses to use in PR and in making the Galaxy website a richer experience.

The promotion was launched with a TV campaign running between appropriate "me time" indulgent TV programmes. The campaign also featured ads in women's magazines - another relaxing read. Online "in banner" content, meanwhile, explained the promotion in detail and showcased the books involved in an attempt to drive consumers to Galaxy's "Irresistible Reads" web portal.

The scale of the initiative meant that the supermarkets and smaller retailers got behind it too - Galaxy recorded its biggest distribution to date as a result of the promotion, and the brand believes the reading-themed in-store activity diverted consumers from the price-led promotions of its competitors.

Galaxy achieved its greatest share of the chocolate market -17.9 per cent - taking 2 per cent from Cadbury's Dairy Milk, despite the latter's lauded "gorilla" ad. In terms of value, sales increased in the first quarter of 2009 by 38 per cent year on year, compared with 8 per cent for Cadbury's Dairy Milk - despite Cadbury outspending the category by 63 per cent.

The work won the Grand Prix in the 2009 Media Week Awards.

BLACKBERRY AND STARCOM MEDIAVEST

Among 18- and 19-year-olds, the most desirable mobile handset these days isn't an iPhone - it's the BlackBerry. The company has managed to hold on to its previous mainstay - grey-suited, over-40s business people - but thanks to the growing success of its BBM instant-messaging service, it has been gaining traction in the under-20s market.

And it was Starcom MediaVest's ability to tap into the company's user database that prompted it to devise a strategy to enhance that trend. The result was an "integrated content partnership" with the radio station Kiss. This involved BlackBerry sponsoring the station's Breakfast Show and inviting listeners to interact with DJs via BBM.

Starcom not only used BlackBerry's BBM usage data, it also used qualitative data from sources such as online Buzz monitoring and its own social network, The Street, to identify the connection this audience had with BBM. It identified three drivers of behaviour: "instant dialogue", "intimate connections" and "high-energy situations".

The agency then used SpaceID, its bespoke research tool, to find out how these drivers of behaviour related to the BBM users' general media habits. This allowed it to create what the agency believes is a seamless fit between the media partner, Kiss, and the client brand.

The partnership has involved the creation of content opportunities and asset sharing between BlackBerry and Kiss, based on an understanding of what the target audience wants. These include a Kiss 100 BBM Group (which grew to more than 1,900 members within a week of launch), a competition to win an internship at the station and a range of experiences, all shared and documented through BBM.

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