The road that can lead media agencies to higher ground
Media agencies have a tough road ahead of them, writes Dominic Mills - but they can reach the promised land.
I don't think anyone would dispute that media agencies, for most of the time, are currently stuck on a low road that leads to, if not nowhere, then a dystopian land. This territory is marked by low prices, docile servant-master relationships, and an endless round of pitches all about the money.
We can argue about whose fault it is, but it brings to mind Oscar Wilde's aphorism: "these days man knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing."
It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that a project initiated by the IPA's Media Futures Group (MFG), which comprises the largest media agencies, is entitled 'Know the Value of Media', the implication being that if clients better understood the value media could contribute to their organisation in the round, they might view their media agencies differently.
To demonstrate this, the IPA argues, media agencies need to reach into the C-suite, beyond the CMO and strike up relationships with the CEO, CFO, CIO and so on (apologies for the alphabet soup).
I should add here that I have had a small role in this IPA project, chairing a debate involving clients and media and creative agencies at Google Town Hall earlier this month on behalf of the IPA. You can read a summary of the debate here.
The basic proposition, as outlined by MEC's UK CEO, Tom George (who also doubles as chairman of the MFG) is this: that media is no longer just a communications tool, but in the age of the connected consumer actually an engine that can drive the modern-day enterprise. The key is the data that media, and all the multiplicity of consumer touchpoints, produces.
Thus media, defined in its widest sense, has the potential, George argues, if the dots are joined up properly and the internal silos demolished, to affect areas as diverse as new product development, customer care and service, inventory management, corporate reputation and operations (especially for retail and service brands). Heady stuff, but nonetheless real for that.
The client's natural partners in all this, George says - the ones who can orchestrate the way through this complexity - are the media agencies.
There's a sad synchronicity that the launch of this initiative should coincide with the death last week of Ray Morgan.
Most readers under the age of 45 won't have a clue who he is, but Morgan is arguably the man who more than any other set media agencies on this road.
Cheesed off by the dismissive way agencies treated their media departments in the 80s, Morgan launched, not the first, but the most influential media independent, Ray Morgan and Partners (RMP).
This prejudice against media agencies held fast for many years (some might say it still does). As editor of Campaign in the mid-90s, I was regularly berated for covering the media independents.
RMP was famous for many things, not least instituting a policy of hiring graduates (if they were Oxbridge, so much the better) and emphasising the value of planning, but above all for being the building block for the launch of Zenith.
Zenith was not only about scale but also, even though it was part of the Saatchi Group, divorced from, operating independently of (and culturally a million miles away from) its creative agency sisters.
Where Zenith led, others followed. Most of today's media agency giants, even though they are owned by the big holding companies, are rooted in this notion of media independence: Mediacom, Carat, Vizeum, MEC, Havas Media, PHD and so on.
So would the IPA/MFG being launching this initiative today if Ray Morgan hadn't changed the landscape? I doubt it.
History lesson over, what of today?
The sense I get from this IPA-commissioned survey of UK businesses about their preparedness for the age of the connected consumer is that they are desperate for help. Broadly speaking, they are far from ready to deal with the challenge of the modern-day, media-defined and media-driven, eco-system.
So the need is there. According to my fellow Newsline columnist Bob Wootton, ISBA's media director: "Clients are nervous, a bit confused, but eager to learn and looking for a guide. This initiative is a great opportunity."
The real question then is whether media agencies can fill this space. In a nutshell, when they get in to see the CEO, are they credible?
After all, the competition isn't just creative or digital agencies, but the likes of McKinsey, Accenture, PwC and IBM. They've been whispering in the ears of CEOs for years, and are hardly likely to roll over easily. And, some might say, by relentlessly focusing on buying cheaper over many years, media agencies have put themselves in a box from which it is hard to escape.
But, in fact, they have some strong cards to play. First, unlike the likes of Accenture, they are digital. They've been digital from day one, and they play in the digital space every day.
Second, they have a better understanding of the consumer than all their rivals, perhaps equalled only by creative agencies.
Third, they too can be creative - if you take a wide or holistic definition of creativity - in the way that the consultancies can't. And creativity of thinking and execution is critical.
And fourth, they sit right at the centre of the new media eco-system - not just the paid/owned/earned model - and the myriad interactions between brands and consumers, as well as consumer-to-consumer communications.
As Wootton, who has access to the thinking of top-level CMOs, wryly reports, some of the snake-oil peddled by other entities trying to fill this space, is "glib and simplistic", not to mention eye-wateringly expensive.
So the road to the promised land beckons. I believe the media agencies can make it, or at least some of them. However, the roadmap is littered with obstacles, and it will be neither quick nor easy. I'm sure, though, that Ray Morgan will be applauding his successors at the top of today's media agencies for their ambition.