The independent spirit

02 May 2017  |  Bob Wootton 
The independent spirit

As with the case of media agency Goodstuff, thank goodness yet more top talent is now truly independent and able to raise capital and invest according to their own visions, writes Bob Wootton

There’s much to continue to lament in our parish right now, but I’m in positive mood. Not only has my business has just completed its first year of trading, but I feel several recent occurrences need marking and celebrating. And, hey, it’s spring.

Hats off to Goodstuff, which has just won (ok, bought) its independence back from Omnicom. Ever since I first met them while guiding advertisers to agency partners at ISBA, through last year when I had quite a lot of dealings with them in my Blackwood Seven guise, I’ve been seriously impressed.

They run a great pitch and their retention levels suggest they can keep clients too. Creative and restlessly innovative with amazing (probably obsessive) attention to detail, no wonder they’ve been close to being Campaign’s Media Agency of the Year. Perhaps this time?

A great example of this innovation was their June 2016 Media Showcase event, where major media owners competed for a slot to present their wares to Goodstuff’s many partner creative agencies. A resounding success, they’re running another in May.

Word is they’d long wanted to reacquire the ca.25% stake they sold to Omnicom in return for access to its media trading power when they morphed from comms planning to full-service media agency in 2011.

But apparently the better they did and more they pushed, the more understandably reluctant the network was to forfeit its profitable investment. Even when they started irritating their part owner by beating it in successive pitches.

It was becoming an unhealthy ownership situation - not the first by any means, but unhealthy nevertheless - which needed resolving.

That said, I can’t figure out why Omnicom relented. My guess is that the concurrent sale of its stake in challenger out-of-home specialist Talon might have had some influence.

Whether cross-leveraging or simply tidying up, I don’t know but thank goodness yet more top talent is now truly independent and able to raise capital and invest according to its vision unencumbered.

Talking of Talon, private equity ownership is now widespread in OOH. Time will tell whether the posturing and short-term focus this brings is sustainably compatible with the longer-term business of building clients’ brands - especially for such a classic branding platform.

It reminds me of when most of UK commercial radio was in public ownership. They got into a pickle that the telly folks avoided - the market pricing their stock predominantly on their audience figures. I was on the RAJAR board at the time and recall the embargo shenanigans at each quarterly data release.

Only when the big groups reverted to private ownership was the medium able to think much beyond the end of the quarter and reorient its investment accordingly. Fortunately, the rest is history.

Whilst on radio, I participated in last year’s beta test of a clever and inconspicuous new consumer device which retro-enables older cars so they can receive digital radio, take a bluetooth feed from a smartphone to play iTunes, Spotify et al and make and receive handsfree calls.

The product test phase now complete, it’s just been launched. I realise most people reading this have several spanky new Mercedes, BMWs or Porsches, but if you’re a real person like me and you have a couple of ten year-old cars, Radioplayer Car is the answer. I’m buying two. Bloody brilliant and a big shout out to Michael Hill who leads the project at Radiocentre.

On yet another positive note (must be something in the water), UKOM hosted an excellent event on Perspectives on Trust with a senior invited audience at the Ham Yard Hotel, which has become an event venue of choice.

The subject matter seemed oblique for an industry currency provider, but it was spot on, caught the moment and delegates found it all the better and more interesting for it.

Times ex-journalist and current columnist Michael Gove MP was due to speak but had a good alibi - the commons vote on the snap General Election. Events, dear boy... So the outgoing Standard editor - Sarah Sands, now bound for Radio Four’s Today programme - stepped in at no notice a did a great job. As did a panel of six informed and diverse industry speakers.

The event managed to tap the current mood around trust issues, whether quantitative accountability, trading group malarkey, fake news or egregious journalistic behaviours, without falling into the trap of poking anyone in the eye with too sharp a stick.

It was a great flag-waver for UKOM which, like most industry currencies has to fight hard for adequate funding and whose earlier days saw it struggle for traction and saliency.

Only when a spat breaks out between two rivals are media owners reminded how much they should value and invest in their currencies.

UKOM's principal media owner stakeholders are now the biggest players in town, but retain a pretty hostile of view of almost any cost (er, paying for content, tax etc.).

But under the skilful leadership of chairman Douglas McArthur (dubbed the Dundee Exocet by fellow Newsline columnist Dominic Mills) and CEO Ian Dowds, UKOM is now gaining stature and influence.

And now is the time. Advertisers are - at last - beginning seriously to question online’s true delivery.

Yet again, the UK is unique in the world in having independent, cross-industry bodies: UKOM to oversee and enhance audience measurement by comScore; and JICWEBS to set the industry’s standards by which performance can be judged.

Best make sure, then, that we ensure they have the operating headroom to succeed on our behalf.

Finally, I can’t resist a jibe. One of our industry’s leaders recently declared Amazon Echo’s Alexa their new bezzy friend. A bit sad, you might say, but hardly worth remark. And I’d agree had not a senior colleague in the same network declared their love for a Powerplate a couple of years back. Maybe time to get a life...

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