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Natural enemies vs. partners who sometimes fight...

10 Jul 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
Natural enemies vs. partners who sometimes fight...

Agencies and media owners will have the odd punch-up from time to time - but it is much better for everyone if the starting point is that they are essentially partners who have the occasional fight, writes Dominic Mills

As I write this on Monday morning, a Quantcast staffer will be receiving a package. Inside is a bottle of branded champagne - MEC-branded that is. Lucky them, eh?

The Quantcast individual is this week’s MEC Media Hero, part of an initiative by MEC to build closer partnerships with media owners. The idea is to reward a media partner, an individual, who has gone beyond the call of duty.

Of course all agencies and media owners say they want to be closer partners with the other - indeed, ‘partnership’ seems to be a much-overused word in the ad industry lexicon - but action rarely matches the talk. But maybe things are changing.

TV viewers may have noticed a really good example of partnership in action this weekend with a four-way collaboration between ITV, C4, Mindshare and Fox to promote this week’s release of War for the Planet of the Apes.

Each broadcaster simultaneously (in Skyfall for ITV, Bridesmaids for C4) showed an ad that pointed viewers to the other channel if they wanted a fuller story. One ad told the story from the human view, the other from the apes’.

You can imagine that this was not an easy deal to set up. Broadcasters would naturally expect, if not exclusivity, then to be the dominant player. Negotiations will have been complex, if not tortuous.

Were agencies and media owners to behave as natural enemies, then this deal would probably have never seen the light of day. But it seems to me that, after a few years in which this is exactly how they behaved, the tide is turning.

How has this come about? The rise of group-wide deals between the likes of, say, GroupM and media owners encouraged each side to take an adversarial stance. It reduced media to a commodity, with one side as dominant buyer and the other as supine - although they would only admit it privately - supplier. The prevailing mood was ‘Us vs. Them’.

Agencies rarely go public on this level of detail - perhaps they think it’s too dull, too granular - but the MEC methodology is worth noting."

In fact the only beneficiary of these arrangements were the group buying arms. Media owners were squeezed till the pips squeaked; clients were shoe-horned into commoditised deals; and media agencies - the likes of Mindshare, MEC or MGOMD - found it hard to add value or demonstrate how they could make a difference.

The end result has been to squeeze out exactly what the industry needs most: innovation - in this case between media agencies and owners.

But partnership...well that can change the picture. You can see examples everywhere, but here are two that spring to mind: one, MGOMD’s deal with Sky Media last year to create an ‘on-demand’ pull for the much-anticipated annual John Lewis Christmas schmaltzfest; and two, MEC’s deal with ITV for Danone’s Oykos brand in which winners of Facebook competition could get their faces super-imposed onto a TV ad.

Of course, it is still in the nature of things that agencies and media owners will have the odd punch-up from time to time. But it is much better for everyone if the starting point is that they are essentially partners who have the occasional fight.

This certainly works for media owners. Hammered in their day-to-day trading, partnerships are where they can best generate incremental revenue. And it works for agencies, who can demonstrate to clients that, without them, this clever, stand-out stuff would be hard to achieve.

Good partnerships can mean competitive advantage.

No agency would dissent from this but it’s how you turn it into structured behaviour that matters.

Agencies rarely go public on this level of detail - perhaps they think it’s too dull, too granular - but the MEC methodology is worth noting. First, it has a head of partnerships - Emma Dibben – who in turn has recruited eight agency staffers as ‘Ambassadors’, each of whom represents a clutch of media owners inside the agency to help them bring ideas to life across any area of MEC activity.

In Sea Containers House, MEC’s home since mid-2016, Dibben has also created a Partner Centre, taking advantage of the layout of the building. Key media owners with ‘partnership’ status have a pass that lets them into the building, and then into the public area.

They can hang around - watch Loose Women, grab a flat white from the cafe - do their own work and interact with MEC staff, clients or indeed other media owners. Serendipity, those chance meetings with someone walking through the public space, matters. There’s at least one media owner there every day, and many spend the whole day there.

Although it sounds relatively trivial, the building makes a huge difference. In MEC’s old home in Paris Garden, an 80s bunker crossed with a rabbit warren, such an arrangement would have been impossible.

The result is that media owners get to know faster how MEC is thinking about a particular campaign, and can get involved right at the start. Similarly, MEC gets an early insight what the owners are up to.

None of this means that you can force partnership on anyone. Both sides have got to want to dance. But having a formalised structure means you can create the right conditions.

Who knows, we may even head back to a time when agencies and owners actually liked each other.

When empathy and self-restraint are lacking

I had been about to congratulate the industry on a magnificent feat of self-restraint. The kind where wiser heads prevail and persuade their gung-ho marketing colleagues not to, say, find a way to turn the Grenfell fire into an opportunity.

You know the kind of thing: '10 Lessons RBKC Council can learn about connecting with consumers’. Or ‘Why Kensington Council needs a masterclass in crisis management’.

Well, not quite. What should pop into my inbox last week but an email headed ‘Grenfell Tower - managing the aftermath’?

Here’s the pitch, via some kind of PR wire service, from XL Communications: “The aftermath was labelled “absolute chaos”, with little communication with residents regarding rehoming and a lack of coordination. As volunteers figure out how to communicate with residents and the councils’ involvement is criticised, Nick Hawkins, managing director EMEA at Everbridge will discuss how critical communications technology can streamline relief strategies and ensure action is timely.”

Lucky me! The chance to speak to Nick Hawkins of Everbridge, a company that specialises in, not communications itself, but some kind of tech platform.

Refuse this I easily could. But just 30 minutes later the invitation was withdrawn, no doubt the result of journalists refusing in colourful language. “It was by no means an attempt to capitalise on a tragic event,” XL explained. Yeah, right.

It’s hard to say where the blame lies. Was it an eager-to-please agency selling the idea to the client? Or an aggressive client pushing the agency? Either way, let’s hope one fires the other.

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VicDavies, Course Leader, Bucks New University on 11 Jul 2017
“I think the alternative ads on different channels is not new. HHCL and The Media Business(now Mediacom) did it to launch First Direct Bank”