The reinvention of Zenith: phase 1

16 Jun 2014  |  Dominic Mills 
The reinvention of Zenith: phase 1

After losing its way recently, ZenithOptimedia finally has an idea which could turn things around, writes Dominic Mills - but it will need many more if it really wants to get into different territory.

This week at Cannes, Sean Healy, ZenithOptimedia's global planning director and resident brainbox, will stand up and present the agency's latest wheeze: a claimed new approach that puts owned media at the centre of its strategic approach.

It's easy to be sniffy about this kind of thing. Agencies are always trying to claim that they've found some new form of alchemy. DDB, for example, has received a lot of flak for its 'influence' manifesto, with some describing it as verbal diarrhoea.

But for Zenith, the unveiling of this new way of looking at media carries a huge significance. You may, or may not believe - as I do - that Zenith has lost its way and, presented last year with the opportunity to change under new leadership, retreated in a blind funk. This looks like a new start, and a chance to get on the front foot again.

Regardless, nobody would dispute that, in order to escape the race to the bottom that is endemic to all media agencies, they have to reinvent and redefine themselves. Hence Zenith's 'owned first' proposition.

How does a media agency reinvent itself? Well, it starts with a 'theory' that gives it something to say, and allows it to claim a point of difference. If it can 'own' a piece of territory, so much the better. Creative agencies are pretty good at this sort of thing, media agencies less so.

I don't really know why this is so. In media, more than creative, the huge changes in the landscape mean there's plenty of interesting stuff to say. Yet apart from trotting out some thinking on social, or dual-screening, or the connected consumer - where what media agency A has to say sounds remarkably similar to that said by B, C and D - you don't get much ground-breaking thinking.

I suspect it's because in media agencies the r&d function has had the life squeezed out of it by the relentless downward pressure on margins. Back in the 90s, when they wanted to prove they could marry brains and brawn, the big media agencies devoted time, effort and resource to the thinking function. These days, all the thinking goes on the day-to-day client work and there's less time to think big, umbrella-type thoughts.

And what of Zenith's 'owned-first' idea? If I was to reduce it to a three-second pitch, it's this: in this conversational, real-time digital age, the best opportunities for meaningful consumer engagement, whether it's entertainment or utility, reside in owned media. Owned media can be anything from Red Bull's Air Race to Unilever's All Things Hair YouTube channel or a brand website. But a brand needs a strategic partner to make the most of owned media, and it is this space Zenith is making a play for.

To prove its theory, Zenith has tons of interesting stats and charts to back this up - if you like, some decent owned media. You can go the website here or read a nice little e-book here.

I think there's a lot of sense in what Zenith says. Owned media is content marketing by another name (clients have got to fill their owned media with something, and that something is content), and content marketing is the hot topic of the moment.

Rightly so. The Content Marketing Association - for whom I am consulting editor - believes that content is the medium through which a brand promise can be brought to life, and that is critical at a time when trust and authenticity are can make or break a brand.

But of course, content is a complex business: what does a brand do, and when, where and how does it get noticed? All these are important questions to be asked, and Zenith's 'owned first' strategy represents a concerted attempt by it to grab a share of the lucrative strategic pie.

Look at 'owned first' from Zenith's point of view, and it also looks like a clever move. Assuming clients find its pitch credible (and I can see no reason why they shouldn't), it moves Zenith further away from a pure buying shop (although, as it notes, you still have to buy paid media in order to get your owned media noticed), further up the food chain with the client, and opens up the possibility of consultancy fees.

And it goes without saying that Zenith has a division, Newcast that produces content. No prizes for guessing that they'll be looking to piggy-back off 'owned first'.

Of course, there isn't a big media agency that doesn't have its own content division these days - MediaCom's Beyond Advertising or MEC's Access division, for example - but they're often treated as nice add-ons rather than a central part of the offering. 'Owned First', by contrast, not only gives Newcast a leg-up, but potentially puts it at the centre of the proposition.

For my money, this is just phase one of Zenith's reinvention. It's a good start, but if it really wants to get into different territory, it needs some more good ideas it can credibly own.

P.S. Oi, Zenith people: there's a silly typo on page 7 of your e-book. If you're going into owned media, you really need to make sure that sort of thing doesn't happen. Here's a clue: it's the spelling of a certain WPP-owned research agency.

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