The media shall inherit the earth

The N.W, Ayer buiding in Philadelphia, an art deco masterpiece. N.W. Ayer was founded in 1869 and was the first advertising agency to create ads for clients rather than just book space for them.

I had a terrible premonition the other day.

I was waiting for a meeting at a prestigious London media agency. Their reception was wonderfully swanky, all extreme sports on the telly, big bowls of sweeties on the coffee table and agency propaganda smeared all over the walls. And I clicked.

We, the so called ‘creative agencies’, are not future of advertising, they are.

We thought that when the historic schism took place and media was amputated from our full service offerings, that the mantle of the ‘advertising agency’ stayed with us. All that had happened was that the sixth floor had been sliced off and multiply merged to provide enormous buying points for clients. It really had nothing much to do with us.
But things have gone very wrong and we have barely noticed.
For starters we forgot that the media companies were the original advertising agencies, providing creative services as an added value offering to clients that placed their advertising budget with the agency.
Secondly, we allowed ourselves to be saddled with the ‘creative’ agency monica rather than defending the advertising agency label with our lives. There is something oh so demeaning about being labelled the ‘creative’ agency, talk about being damned with feint praise.
Thirdly, as our receptions got more grungy and ‘transparent’, showing that we no longer believed in the division of public and private space, theirs got ever more spectacular consuming more and more of the UK’s production of chrome. These days media companies even look more like advertising agencies than we do.
But this is no accident, pissed off at years of bringing up the rear in pitch presentations, the media boys and girls are out for blood.
They desperately want the primary client relationship because as the ‘creative’ agencies we clearly have no interest in sales or even advertising effectiveness whereas they are the custodians of the client’s budget – sensible and cautious as you would be with such an onerous responsibility.
They are, even as we speak, maneuvering behind our backs while we re-arrange the magic markers in colour order.
We have already witnessed their acquisition of digital capabilities, the next step will be to buy up small creative shops so at long last they have some creative people they can boss about.
And that of course will be the last straw – when the buggers can do their own ads.
Full service will have come full circle.

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31 Replies to “The media shall inherit the earth”

  1. This probably means that the typical agency/client ‘It’s a 30 second commercial, now what’s your product?’ type meetings are in their twilight years. Not a moment too soon. Glad to see the back of you.
    I’d urge all communications types to read McLuhan’s seminal 1964 classic ‘Understanding Media’. Then all the discussion about it’s-not what-you-say but how-you-say-it, stuff starts to make a little more sense. Iconic VW brand thinking incidentally.

  2. I think that is the reason why Charles.
    Too many ad agencies seem to be happy churning out rubbish. Eventually the brand owners are obviously going to look at other ways of doing things.
    Notice how it is the smaller agencies that appear to be booming at the moment; perhaps their added closeness and (seemingly) media knowledge is making that difference.

  3. Richard
    Your tongue-in-cheek (or was it barely disguised contempt – difficult to tell…) account of what you believe will happen in the future contains a fatal flaw: why on earth would a media agency want its own in-house creative department? There is no point. A couple of senior creative directors, perhaps but not a department: they will be able to maintain complete control over the creative output without owning a creative department
    They are far more likely, in my opinion, to concentrate on developing the sort of strategic talent you and I have discussed numerous times (i.e. planners are just planners: not media planners; or account planners; or “integrated” planners – just strategic thinkers).
    The media networks owned by the global holding companies already use other companies in the group to activate the tactical elements of the strategies they develop and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility to picture a time when things have progessed to the point where “creative agencies” exist to be hired on an ad-hoc basis when needed to execute the creative elements (whether they be flimed/print/online/other advertising, event “look and feel”, or whatever) and then re-hired when needed next time (or by another agency).
    Rather than media agencies buying creative talent, it is probably more likely that more and more media owners will hire people who are able to bring their “full service” offerings to life.
    The full service offering of the past is not coming back – not like it was.

  4. I agree with Rob’s point about smaller agencies. Small and nimble seems to be working – places where they manage to talk about media ideas and creative ideas in the same room – on fact maybe they just call them ideas.

  5. I truly believe a full service agency will inherit the earth, or a media/creative collaboration like Naked/Mother.
    Well, it makes commercial sense. With so many media channels, brand owners will be crying out for those who understand the sales features and practicalities of them, whilst requiring the creative to ‘paint the pictures’ as you’ve put it before.
    I think there may be a split between the wholly full service and those who want to keep the division alive. Not all advertising agencies are created equal.
    Perhaps then a division between the full service ‘agencies’ and the creative or media focused ‘consultancies’?
    Worth a thought..

  6. Funny debate this. Maybe because it’s trying to reduce everything to polarities – media or creative agency; full-service or boutique. There are too many different clients with different preferences to make things that simple.
    One problem with the big media agencies is their business model which, as far as I can work out, is simply about big. The bigger they are , the bigger the deal. Media planning becomes functional and buying is all about bulk. Which saves clients lots of money but means they lose out on flexibility, local initiative etc. Consequently, smaller media strategy companies like M2M and Goodstuff have emerged.
    Media companies with an inhouse creative offering maybe work for some. A bit like clients with inhouse creative which seems to work well for C4. But probably not for everyone. (By the way, if there are only CD’s, aitchaitch, aren’t they just the creative team? Whose creative ideas would they be directing other than their own? Or are the buyers going to be doing ideas?)
    What about boutique creative groups like Engine? By focussing upon strategy, idea and implementation across the board, such small groups offer a tempting proposition to clients struggling to get various agencies working together – which was Will’s point. And in doing so, they provide a challenge to the big bulk buying media agencies who never seem to be able to tailor anything that precisely.
    Charles, we meet again. I’ve read McLuhan and I don’t remember him having a go at the 30″ TV commercial, which many people once prefered to the programmes around it. People also knew where they were with telly ads unlike all that dodgy stealth in today’s Guardian,,2001647,00.html which is about as ethical as subliminal ads for ciggies in the cinema. Gossage, the bloke who introduced McLuhan to the world was an adman who did hate TV ads (and posters which he thought were corporate pollution). He also argued that if you want people to pay attention to your ad it has to be more interesting than everything else around it. Which makes sense regardless of media. And I think points to the way to the only possible future for the business which is extremely high quality creative work in whatever media is appropriate. I don’t see any media company, anywhere capable of delivering that on their own.

  7. I attach the following in full, just to prove that great minds think alike, if at slightly different speeds. This ran in New Media Age on 18/09/03…
    Which is probably why none of you read it ;-)
    The first advertising agency was formed in 1886 by a space salesman for religious magazines. He conjectured that there was a market for an ‘agency’ that could handle the purchase of space and the creation of something to stick in it. He introduced testimonial ads, census-based demographic and economic research adding a scientific gloss to the industry, coined the phrase “It pays to advertise” and invented the account executive. The name of this visionary was J. Walter Thompson.
    Judging by his portrait, which now hangs in most JWT offices, Thompson was an amiable, nautical-looking cove, given to white beards and jaunty yachting caps. He was, and still is, reverently referred to as ‘The Commodore’. Though there is no record that the old crook ever held a real Naval rank, it was an appropriate affectation because working for the original agencies must have been much like serving on a ship.
    Beneath the Commodore was a gentlemanly officer rank of Account Executives who, over long and agreeable lunches with the client , would agree what they wanted to communicate to consumers. Much later in the afternoon the account man would hand over the idea to the lower decks. Copywriters would craft the copy, commercial artists, down in the hold, would provide pictures if necessary and down in the bilges degraded galley slaves would negotiate for the results to be published in newspapers and magazines.
    This quaintly honest model of agencies run by suits, with profits derived from media deals lasted nearly a century before things got messy.
    Throughout the seventies and early eighties, the ad agencies became ‘creative’ businesses. All those self generated stereotypes of snake-hipped young creative gunslingers working late into the night cracking the perfect solution stem from this golden era. Advertising no longer felt like a grubby commercial pursuit that was all about selling. Agency people somehow managed to convince themselves they were a profession, (you know, like doctors and lawyers) that was creative (like film makers, writers or artists).
    Such self-delusion, though amusing, should have been largely harmless. Unfortunately, the industry was doing very well at the time and when the media parts of the agencies decided they were profitable enough to go it alone the newly ‘Creative’ agencies saw a great opportunity to divest themselves of the filthy taint of commerce and let them go.
    For a while “Creative” and media agencies coexisted like a grumpy, loveless but ultimately comfortable marriage; then things changed again. Some blame new media for bringing the issue of media neutrality to the fore but in reality it was just clients becoming aware that there was more to effective marketing than 30s TV spots. First to benefit were the media agencies. With no creative axe to grind they could offer really exciting media neutral packages to advertisers and provide figures that went some way toward proving effectiveness.
    Many of the media agencies bought up bright people from the, now pressurised ‘creative’ agencies and began to take control offering strategic advice at higher levels. In the best cases they were telling clients how much or little to spend with the ad agency.
    Recently, the emphasis has shifted again. Companies working in the traditionally ‘below the line’ areas have started getting pissed off at media agencies suggesting PR stunts and DM projects in what they feel is their space. Many of them are looking to recruit more strategic capability.
    Finally, things have moved full circle. Some of the ad agencies have decided to install media strategy units in an attempt to seize back the high ground.
    So can we expect a glut of briefs from the ad boys? Dream on. A media agency can suggest a radical mixture of media and still have the same budget to spend on it. If an ad agency can’t sell a lot of expensive ads in traditional media it can’t retain costly creative teams with a primary interest in yellow pencils. If they suggest a campaign based around, for the sake of argument, direct mail and online, they have to subcontract the work and the money leaves the agency. How likely is that?
    Sticking a media team in the middle of a ‘creative’ agency fools no-one. The business model of the agency is such that it has to produce TV to survive. As the Commodore would have recognised; no matter what flag of convenience it flies, a sinking ship is a sinking ship.

  8. Phil – so something along the lines of ‘couture creative’?
    I agree with you about the media giants being unable to compare on those terms.
    Without wishing to turn this into something of a planning lovefest, would you also contest that strategists (in whatever form, media or ‘creative’) will be the bridge between the divide? I can see the planners of the future having a lot more of a say in the media spend, being trained in both discipline as they should be.
    It also brings to the table a lot more ‘honest’ comms, with strategists/trend spotters having a much better idea of what will work with the segment of the market they are trying to target; hopefully, no more clumsy Playstation PSP examples(remember the ‘I want one for Christmas’ blog?).

  9. Half the problem is that too many people in the industry spend too much of time with their heads firmly up their arses – so whilst they may think they are being oh-so-clever, they are actually showing themselves to be about as aware of average people’s ‘lives’ as the Queen.
    Too many comms people are prejudice to channels other than the ones they know/like which is probably why so much of it is unimaginative, irrelevant or just plain crap. I know media specialists are suppose to be the bastions of impartial advice, but even they tend to miss out the basic understanding that people don’t actually spend their life waiting for an ad.
    Yes the single agency model is probably best … but apart from the fact too much money is being made with them split, it still only works if the people within that agency understand it’s about knowing ‘consumers lives’ not just their ‘media consumption habits’. [I absolutely detest when companies talk about ‘exposure’ or ‘opportunities to see’ because that means absolutely nothing and is a cheap way to pretend you have achieved ‘something’]
    I hate to say it … but some of these posts show we’re more detached from reality than ever … understand life then advertising, the other way round is what’s getting us into this mess.


  11. Dave … I think you’re missing the point … getting your name known across the World is pretty easy – the hard bit is doing it in a way that motivate peoples to act/think in a way that specifically fulfils your business objective.
    So to answer your question … WHY do you want your name known across the World. What do you want to specifically achieve then I can tell you how I’d do it … because to be honest, it might be neither of the options you give me [even though an ad agency SHOULD in principle be the better option!]

  12. Hi Phil
    My point is that a central tenet in ‘Understanding Media’ is so contentious it must be either mostly right or wrong (I’m not a great believer in binary solutions)?
    If we now openly discuss that how we say something has a greater impact than what is actually said then it’s arguable that the media actually used to communicate the, can we go old school, and call it tonality, is just as important, if not more, than the message itself.
    This is remarkably close in thinking to ‘The medium is the message’ articulated over 40 years ago and seems to have fallen out of favour. I find it quite compelling and in light of new media formats interaction, such as the internet, and the tricky classification of hot and cold media, gives me a lot of food for thought and again and again makes me wish for an upfront media discussion. It’s that crucial.
    Just thinking out aloud and nice to meet you again too :)

  13. Tim says (or quotes): “A media agency can suggest a radical mixture of media and still have the same budget to spend on it” True, but someone has to fill that media with stonking great ideas. Which is not a problem as the genuinely good creatives I know want to be working at the cutting-edge of media more than they covet yellow pencils.
    Will, avoid the planning lovefest, I’ve yet to meet a planner who can do it all themselves. My perfect triangle (see brand tarot) would be planner/creative/client all of one mind – to do something powerful and original.
    Charles, McLuhan always pops up when a new media hits the mainstream. He came to public attention in the early 60’s as TV went mass, was the talk of the town in the early 90’s when the first wave of new media agencies emerged and is back today as the net matures. Media is a powerful message when it is new to the world like online or a big, new step up for your brand like TV for many. But it is only part of the message. What the brand does within that medium is clearly the most important thing.
    Anyway, old media/new media thing is a nonsense for planners. It is an executional line, good thinking goes much deeper and happens before any media decision is made.
    The future belongs to the problem solvers and idea generators, as it always has done.

  14. Phil,
    I wasn’t necessarily advocating that planners are the future, but it’s interesting to wonder just how much the job roles will shift if, as you say, the future belongs to those who solve the problems and can generate ideas.
    The triangular thinking on John Grant’s blog is genius. I love the oppositional one – a kind of dialectic for comms thinking.

  15. Sorry Will, I never read your comment properly.
    I think you are right about the job roles shifting. We planners are already having to learn a lot of new stuff and the media agencies and online companies seem to be hiring a lot of planners these days. Campaign Planning (a much better term I think than communication planning) is a lot more fun these days.

  16. It is not worth a post on it’s own and in any case doing so would give them the oxygen of publicity.
    But are any other planners pissed off at the patronising and disrepectful depiction of planners in the ads the IPA are running for their effectiveness awards this year?
    They are full of images of planners as speccy twats that can’t remember what day it is and are clearly written by creatives that have no acces to decent planners and no respect for them.
    I’m proper angry and cerainly won’t be entering their awards.

  17. You are so right Richard … rebel, get angry and boycott because it is wrong – and stupid – that an organisation based on understanding and engaing the ‘masses’ use cliched ‘boffin’ imagery to convey intelligence.
    Planning isn’t about being boffins … it’s about understanding, connecting and embracing humanity and if any image should be used, it’s of a bloody shop assistant not a 4-eyed geek whose skin looks like it hasn’t seen daylight for 17 years.

  18. I’d give my right arm to look like a speccy twat! Sigh…
    Phil, thanks for your comments. I’m fan for McLuhan as I see a lot of overlap between ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’ AND ‘the medium is the message”. The media spectrum has such different textures and the work is still fresh.
    On a lighter note Yahoo search asks ‘Did you mean Adulterated?’ when, Yahooing for adliterate. I yelled back “Yes, absolutely” and a few Scandinavians choked on their coffee and cinammon buns, in the ersatz euro-bakery-in-the-tropics i’m bunking off work from :)

  19. I havent seen the IPA stuff, but that sounds like remarkably bad ideas.
    Why is it that so many people whose very role is to understand communication seem to struggle with even the very fundamental aspects of it.

  20. I love this argument. Sorry as I havent had time to read it all and Im a little late. I have seen the bickering in a full service shop, isolated in a media agency.Then in a full service shop that tried to put the consumer first with a core account group (media, act ser, act planners) which accessed range or producers. It had one P&L across the client. It limited the arguments and also allowed the media guys to cross sell the agencies capabilities. I have always dreamed of becoming the ‘ultimate planner’, as I believe you are right will in how the model will change for our roles. But my problem lies in one thing…. “EGO”. No one owns anything. The best work comes from teams that are open to anything. Im happy for a creative (I also hate that term) person to give their opinion on media. But expect my opinion back on their work. I believe we are all apart of the ‘collective intelligence’ world just by participating here. Everyone is open to peoples opinion online amongst everyones blogs. So why cant we do it in boardrooms.
    I believe that everyone is creative. Its about conceptual ideas. Not producing them. Everyone can add to that.
    On the point of buying smaller agencies. Most media agencies these days do have a collection of small agencies they will work with. Why ??? they dont get the arrogance of big network agencies and everyone is seen as equal. Therefore the communication between the companies, leads to better work. Dont get me wrong, it is often a positive for the media agency in front of the client. As we have EGO just as much.
    I just want to park the ego at the door. Surround myself with open, smart, creative people and get some great freakin work out there. Is that too much to ask

  21. Phil,
    In principle I agree that the main point of big media is its bigness. Or, at least, that’s been the way for the last however long. But the growth of the boutique comms planning agencies, led by Naked, has forced them to up their game and increase their capability; and, heaven forefend, get clients to pay for it separately (rather than funding it out of investment commissions). In this, they are succeeding. The boutique agencies win project-briefs from the kind of big clients who have the budgets available to pay for this type of thinking but they rarely win long-term retainers (which, some think, may not be a bad thing) and more often than not don’t really get close to Board level marketers – unlike their Big Media counterparts.
    In respect of your point about media agencies hiring CDs… I was thinking they would hire directors of creativity, rather than creators of creativity (!). In the model I envisage, planners of whatever ilk (strategic thinkers, for the want of a better phrase) will still do the briefing but their ability to develop a selling idea won’t automatically mean they are the best people to inspire the best work from outsourced creative agencies nor judge the quality of the bought-in work. So you need someone who can do both: a director of creativity…
    Well, that’s what I think, anyway.

  22. Sorry to join late, and back on the original thesis…
    Actually I used to think media agencies were set to inherit the earth too. I wrote a whole chapter about this several books back – although I think that would be the book you skipped Richard because you thought the first one was so bad ;J
    But actually perhaps the debate has moved on:
    – WPP used to make all its money from their media networks, now it reckons (according to Sorrell speech I saw late last year) it will be 2/3 from digital services and/or emerging markets
    – the nemesis of media buying is almost bound to be efficient electronic markets (like modern commodities exchanges or indeed ebay). Clients will buy their spots from the same screen they check their emails while having breakfast. Media buyers likely to have a similar future to those blokes in funny jackets that used to work in the city.
    – that leaves media planning which is increasingly resembling brand strategy consultancy ie us
    Therefore they wont inherit the earth, we will.

  23. The debate may have moved on, but personally I’m really struggling to understand your second bullet there, John.
    Electronic media sales markets are almost certainly the way of the future but, as with commodities markets, clients will still need to pay someone to do the executional bit for them. Big (or even bespoke) media buying agencies will surely retain a competitive edge by being able to buy efficiently and at discounted prices based on volumes: I just can’t picture Alan Rutherford and Bernard Balderstone furiously flicking through their Crackberries over breakfast at the Sanderson. Also, as with my point further up this thread about media agencies buying creative agencies, I don’t believe Unilever or P&G or whoever will hire their own media buyers: why incur the cost and the hassle? Smaller clients are even less likely than the global Leviathans to buy their own media, as they won’t have the resources, expertise or muscle to be able to do it properly.
    Those commodity traders of yore haven’t gone away, they’ve just swapped their funny jackets for dress-down chinos and hunkered down behind banks of screens.
    And they still make mountains of money.
    Having said all that, I do agree that the buying and the planning of media will gradually separate; but that will be a good thing as it will enable planning agencies to be much more objective in their thinking.

  24. John,
    We are just going to have to put whatever views I had on your first book behind us – you have written a book (or three) and I haven’t. End of story. Now of course I don’t think that media agencies are going to inherit the earth but creative agencies need to wipe that smug and arrogant look off their faces quick smart. The media agencies want our lunch and they reckon they have a far greater right to the primary clinet relationship than we do. They want us as hired guns.
    I think that view is entirely plausible – they are hoovering up planners and digital shops and I think the first sale of a Karamarama or a Farm to a media shop can only be round the corner.
    And good luck to them. My view is however, that they are profoundly logical thinking organisations and not lateral thinking and that buying in the lateral thinking may be organisationally uncomfortable for them and end in tears.

  25. Personally, i think it’s all up for grabs. Forget the terms and labels because as far as clients are concerned they are simply looking for;
    In other words a partner who KNOWS how to create ideas that are deliverable through the right channels, generating transactions in whatever currency they’ve defined.
    The fact that clients are listening to Media and boutique agencies highlights their willingness to consider new ‘partners’ which I think is fantastic, as for once it may level out the playing field.
    What’s more, brands operate in extremely competitive marketplaces and frankly, they couldn’t care who delivers the solution.

  26. Phil if you’re checking this is a large part of how I view media when I reference Marshall McCluhan. Of course it’s easy to trot him out during new-media-period-intervals but I got into him through a client(and friend) who pushed me hard on all media to deliver more effectively than television.
    I’m sure also that you’re aware of alpha state under TV exposure. It wouldn’t be hard to write a whole brief just around disrupting that state. Although I find some of the fast forward TV culture is starting to get into that neck of the woods.
    Hey who knows, maybe you aren’t even following this! :)

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