Remember Mediapalooza? This Fall Will Bring Another Wave of Media Reviews With No End in Sight

Agencies reach fever pitch as major clients scrutinize partnerships

AB InBev is one of a surprising number of major accounts that have gone into review in recent months.
AB InBev

It’s happening again.

Just over two years ago, several of the world’s largest advertisers, from Coca-Cola to 21st Century Fox, placed their global media accounts in review as part of a six-month, $17.3 billion wave later dubbed “Mediapalooza.”

Industry leaders now see that headlining shift as a harbinger of things to come. In addition to AB InBev, Amazon and other heavy hitters, this fall will see a string of new reviews as clients apply greater scrutiny to their media partnerships. In many cases, agencies themselves may be taken by surprise due to contract clauses that allow consulting firms to begin rounding up competitors before alerting current AORs.

“I have not seen so great a concentration of RFPs specific to media in many years,” said Ken Robinson, founding principal at New York search consultancy Ark Advisors. “It’s not sector-specific, and it’s not just the zillion-dollar reviews: 10 clients spending $50 million leads to a lot more activity in the market than one client spending $500 million.”

MEC U.S. chief operating officer Rick Acampora agreed, calling this trend “the new norm.” He added, “We describe it as ‘always be pitching.’ I would estimate that we will be involved in over 30 pitches this year.”

While Robinson declined to name any specific businesses going into review, all parties who discussed the matter cited “a big spectrum” of accounts across auto, tech, ecommerce and other sectors. Robinson also said it’s no coincidence that this trend comes almost exactly one year after the ANA released an extensive, contentious report on transparency (or the alleged lack thereof) in the world of media buying.

“I think people either suspect media shenanigans or, in the case of procurement-led reviews, recognize the lack of protection they have in their own contracts,” he said. “In the past, the approach had been ‘set it and forget it’ with media, while clients focused more on the creative work. I never had clients ask about transparency. Ever.”

The shift has been visible. In March, JPMorgan Chase announced that it had greatly reduced the number of sites on which it buys ads, with little discernible effect on its business. P&G also cut millions in spending on digital placements and agency fees.

Acampora cited mandatory procurement reviews, increased client-side turnover and “the ever-decreasing life cycle of the CMO,” but agreed that the ANA report “had an impact.” He also argued that, in many cases, “the agency agenda is the most transparent.”

That won’t be enough for some clients, though.

“Agencies are so focused on ‘spots and dots’ and programmatic buying that no one is bringing creative elements into media,” Robinson said, warning of increased commoditization due to a focus on price as more clients take media buying duties in-house. “For the past two years … it’s been more about the science than the art.”

But others see different motivations. Directly countering Robinson’s perspective, UM global CEO Daryl Lee said, “What’s happening now is much more around people assessing their agencies for capabilities, specifically around analytics.”

“Since we pivoted two years ago to start with the science, then get to the art, we haven’t seen a reason to adjust,” added Lee, whose agency most recently won U.S. and global reviews for Ubisoft and Spotify.

All parties agreed that the glut of pending reviews has forced media shops to approach the pitch process more strategically. “If you chase everything, it becomes almost impossible to do any of it well,” Acampora said, “[but] it’s hard to turn down opportunities.”

This is all good news for consultancies, but it will lead to big shifts in the agency landscape because, as Robinson put it, “incumbents rarely win.” One fact is beyond dispute: billions of dollars in media accounts will change hands during the next few months. And the agencies that can’t catch up risk being left further and further behind.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.