Will media agencies become the new creatives?
With the plethora of new media touchpoints and convergence opportunities, could media agencies finally cement their place as the 'new creatives'? By Media Native's David Brennan.
I attended the Mediatel '2015: The Year Ahead' event last week, in the opulent surroundings of the Waldorf Hotel's Palm Court Terrace (my first time back since 1980, when I posed in a pretentious photo-shoot for my new wave/new romantic band's publicity shots).
As we have come to expect, it was well-attended, expertly organised and most entertaining. Hats off as always to Messrs. Snoddy and Douglas - managing to keep their mischievous comments to a reasonable limit most of the time - and even greater plaudits to special guest Pippa Glucklich, CEO of Starcom MediaVest, who managed to represent the media agency sector with aplomb.
When the usual call came round to submit questions from the audience a couple of days beforehand, I had just stumbled across an article from almost a decade ago, written by Simon Marquis for Media Guardian. Simon had witnessed an impressive array of media-led innovations in advertising at the Venice Festival of Media, and raised the possibility that media could become the new creative.
Consequently, my question to the panel was "ten years on, is media becoming the new creative? Are we there yet? Is it even the right path to follow?"
The question had been inspired by a recent MTM survey of senior media agency executives, which I referred to in my last Newsline article, which suggested a much greater interest in core developments like programmatic trading and addressable advertising around the future of TV advertising, and far lower interest in some of the more creative opportunities that the digital revolution is delivering.
It was also inspired by a sense that, although media agencies do have more creative opportunities available and have demonstrated some impressive innovations in using the new platforms and technologies to generate advertising payback, they are not getting full credit for their achievements.
Chatham House Rule prevents me from reporting on the detailed answers to my question, although I think I can get away with saying Pippa felt the media agencies are becoming more creative in their use of media, although one or two contributions from the audience suggested that was far from the case (to quote anonymously; "not a single creative idea has ever come from the media agencies").
Instead, I simultaneously posed the question to some of my senior contacts within the media agency world; their responses fell somewhere between those two extremes, but there was a consensus that media agencies are not nearly as creative in their use of media as they should be.
I have been asked to sit on a number of judging panels in recent years, including the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards as well as several media planning awards. My take on this question is that there are plenty of campaign initiatives that appear to be media agency led, but very few that are integral to the wider campaign.
Consequently, when we see the winners of planning awards from the media trade bodies or specialist publications such as the Media Week Awards, there are plenty of impressive media-led initiatives that demonstrate real returns on investment as well as showing new ways of using media that play on the strengths of the media channels themselves.
Recent examples, off the top of my head, include Nook's partnership with the Evening Standard's 'Get London Reading' campaign; MGOMD's work with Channel 4 for the Sony PS4 campaign; the Lego Movie ad break; and Sainsburys' partnership with 'The X Factor' online from a few years back.
What comes out of the myriad examples of clever and effective use of media to create real advertising returns is the strength of the media idea - often driven by the media agencies themselves; the sense of partnership between media agencies and media owners; and the focused nature of the content around the consumer experience, rather than simply supplying a message. These examples are exactly what Marquis meant when he considered the prospects for media agencies grabbing some of the creative high ground.
What also sets many of these campaigns apart is the short-term, opportunistic nature of the activity (many of them could be thought of more as stunts than campaigns); the detachment in many cases from the 'core' campaign; the focus on partnerships with individual media brands; and the relatively low overlap between these cases and the finalists in the major creative and effectiveness awards, such as the IPA's.
In short, great tactical ideas but little impact on the longer-term, strategic direction of the brands concerned.
So, in answer to the first part of my question - are we there yet? - there seems to be a consensus view that things are moving that way, but there is still a long way to go.
The fact that so many of the recent developments in media could all help to boost the speed of travel - such as product placement, interactive VOD, multi-screening, native advertising, smart use of media owner data and addressability - should be seen as a genuine opportunity. That doesn't mean to say it will happen.
The second part of my question ended up provoking even more debate. Is it the right path to follow? Is that where the money is?
Certainly, the point was made by several of my expert panel that media agencies - despite their tight margins and uncertain future - are actually in a better financial position than the equivalent creative agencies. At the very least they have scale. Although really clever media innovations might win them awards and respect within the industry, it is peripheral to the process of winning that next big account.
So, contrary to the prediction that media agencies might become the new creatives, in a sense we are seeing the scales tip towards what media agencies have always done best; plan, negotiate, implement, evaluate. It was not lost on any of my industry colleagues, when addressing this question, that the big media agencies have managed efficiencies of scale far better than the creative sector!
Equally, it was pointed out that, when media agencies attempt to show their creative chops, the results are often unedifying to say the least! In a recent Campaign article, editor Claire Beale described their overall creative attempts as "eye-wateringly embarrassing". That may be a little harsh, but it is hard to find the evidence to refute it.
Anyway, perhaps we are looking at 'creativity' in the wrong way. Instead of thinking of it as the content, maybe we should be looking at it from the perspective of the other main contributor to consumer engagement; the context. After all, according to the behavioural economists, context is everything. It isn't always the most visible element of a campaign's performance - in fact, most of the contextual influence of advertising works implicitly - but media agencies have far greater opportunities than ever before to add its power to the campaign.
There may only be a few stand-out examples to point to in defence of this hypothesis at the moment, but there generally seem to be more examples of content and context working together to create impressive effectiveness gains.
It may not be where the big volume revenues are, but the media agencies' ability to 'creatively contextualise' will become increasingly apparent in the next few years. It just doesn't make them the 'new creatives'...but then why would they want to be?