And another thing: come back media, all is forgiven

Paul Catmur, the creative managing partner of Barnes, Catmur & Friends, shares his views on life, advertising and other annoyances, such as the unbundling of media. 

A brief history of media

If, like me, you’re over 150 years old, you’ll know that the advertising industry all started with media.

Yes, children, there was a time before the internet, even before radio and TV, when newspapers were the only medium available. Oh, happy day. Enterprising individuals set themselves up as middlemen to sell space to advertisers who couldn’t be arsed with all the running around, and thus were born the very first media agencies.

In the 1850s one of these media men, a certain James Walter Thompson, hired a bunch of failed artists with beards, mild substance abuse and ironic t-shirts to help create his clients’ advertisements, and modern advertising began.

When I started as a copywriter in London a couple of years later I made sure that I worked closely with the agency’s media department. Not just because they were brimming with ideas to help my ads be seen by an enthusiastic public, but also that they had the best girls.

Everything turns to shit

Then, in the 1990s this cosy relationship began to go the way of most cosy relationships. A smart but underemployed media man had worked out that he could undercut the agencies by buying slabs of TV airtime at a discount rate and then passing it onto clients on the basis of cost rather than efficacy. He had very low overheads and was terribly persuasive so before long clients seduced by price rather than value wandered over to have a look.

Worried by this defection, the full service agencies started to follow suit by unbundling their media into separate companies, still owned by the same global holding company. This was accelerated by the desire of the media directors to acquire clients which would have conflicted with those within the main agency. Gradually, independent media agencies became the norm, my media girls moved off to another postcode and I ran away to New Zealand to escape. A few years later Kiwi agencies caught up and went through the same unbundling process themselves.

This whole farrago was assisted by the way in which clients view the different disciplines of media and creative. In very general terms, creative agencies are viewed suspiciously as all their output mainly consists of expensive scribbles on a piece of paper. This is hard to put a value on and a tricky sell to the board. Media agencies, on the other hand, are seen as (relatively) more trustworthy types. Not just because media is by its nature something the accountants can actually see, but because their worth can be demonstrated by the discounts from ratecard that they cheerily wave at the clients on their way to lunch: ‘We’re not a cost, look at the money we saved you! Oysters anyone?’ The commission system assisted in this warped view of worth as media-only agencies can easily discount their own percentage by not having to pay for all those expensive creative types.

Why is this bad?

Well, if you are a large multinational with traditional advertising that you wish to bludgeon global consumers over the head with then perhaps this system has its upside. If, on the other hand, you have a limited budget and creative that you need to work as effectively as possible then it’s a bit of a bugger.

Effective advertising, I hope everyone can agree, is a function of the best creative and the best media working together. This equation is far more likely to blossom if creative and media are actually working together rather than bickering about meeting venues, primacy of ideas and who should get the larger share of the poor client’s dollar. There should be frequent and easy contact between the two, not irregular, awkward meetings where each party tries to push their own agenda. If I can be excused a sporting analogy, imagine a rugby team where the backs and the forwards didn’t speak to each other until kick off; and only got rewarded for what they did, not what the team as a whole did. Any savings made by the bulk buying of media are generally offset by the duplication of gloriously expensive global management structures. And if keeping media apart from creative is such a good idea, why the frick are some media agencies actually hiring creatives?

And don’t get me started on the digital media explosion which is shattering all those clever plans into tiny slivers of targeted opportunity. As that great marketer Mike Tyson famously said ‘Everyone has a plan until they get a punch in the mouth’. Faced with the current onslaught on traditional media assumptions all parties involved should be holding each other tight for support, not waving blithely from separate tables at Prego.

Stick to your knitting

Media-only agencies like to dabble in creative ideas, and while I freely concur that a good idea can come from anywhere, the truth is that creative departments are generally better at ideas. I should hope so, that’s what they’ve been trained in for years. At Cannes most of the winners in the media category were created by creative agencies and had already been awarded as such.

This schism is the reality we face now, but it would do the industry good to put the pieces of the jigsaw back together. Don’t hold your breath, however, because those who run media companies have got too much in the way of power and money to lose. Once they ran a department, now they are chief executives with a direct report up the gravy chain and they’re unlikely to give up their status without a fight.

And another thing…

In case you think I’m a lone maverick spouting dangerous rubbish because of a failure to deal with the loss of media girls, I should point out that I am not alone. Among others, two of the smartest and most influential men in Australasian advertising, Robert Morgan and Sean Cummins, have publicly called for media and creative to kiss and make up. I guess it helps that they’re both rich and successful enough not to really care what anyone else thinks.

Anyway, I shall leave you with a quote from my old pal Sir Martin Sorrell, who seems to be blaming clients for the whole dog’s breakfast:

One of the paradoxes about what’s happening in the industry is that some clients are splitting media from the creative process. To my mind, as media fragments, they should get closer together. Split creative from media and you get more discontinuity, not less.’

He said that in 1996. It’s a shame he didn’t listen.

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