Art & Commerce: Ready to Rumble?

GM’s decision could redefine planning’s place
The World Wrestling Federation’s brutal charm is built in no small measure on the fact that matches go on forever.
Protagonists are always bouncing up off the mat after a vicious beating, ready to resume the fight. This is not new: It is an axiom of storytelling that conflict compels; but drawn-out battles between equals who pound away at each other compels us the most.
Like wrestlers, full-service shops and media agencies are locked in an epic battle over strategic media planning, hurling each other around and snarling about who’s got the biggest muscles. With the announcement last week that General Motors is taking planning away from 17 line agencies and consolidating it at Starcom MediaVest Group, media agencies are, for now, kings of the ring.
GM’s decision has far more impact than a mere buying consolidation. It validates the idea that strategic media planning is not a full-service shop’s birthright–and coming from the world’s largest advertiser, that’s a powerful validation.
More to the point, tens of millions of dollars in revenue will now move from full-service shops, which would call themselves “faces” or good guys in wrestling terms, to a media specialist. Brand shops would deem Starcom a “heel,” or bad guy, in grappling parlance.
I’ve had several nervous calls from big agency, full-service media directors about this situation. They glumly agree that their self-proclaimed role as planning champions has taken a hard hit. The review also is likely to fuel smaller shops’ apprehension about their chances of survival if they don’t align themselves with big media agencies.
Until the GM review, the media agencies seemed to be in a submission hold. Full-service shops pinned their rivals in several high-profile reviews. I had calls from media directors about it. All gleefully agreed that media agencies’ role as planning champions was a hollow boast.
But those were buying only or planning and buying contests, not pure planning competitions. This time, the client didn’t want to hear from its lead shops; it went straight for the media specialists.
In fact, while it’s not rare, it is unusual for an advertiser to have a planning-only review. And GM’s thrown a new wrinkle into the game–rather than move media planning to a buying agency, or assign planning to an existing shop, it’s creating a new, planning-specific entity tentatively called Planworks. In any case, breaking out the planning function flies in the face of tradition: That the ideal scenario is to house both functions at the same entity.
The arrival of Planworks on the ad agency landscape also weakens the claim that strategic development is an intrinsic function of an agency responsible for brand advertising. It opens the door to new ideas about how and where clients can receive this critical counsel.
Some predict a flood of planning-only experimentation will follow Planworks’ debut. Some don’t.
Historically, imitation is the sincerest form of advertising. If that happens, the ring will be filled with tag teams of planning and buying specialists.
Get ready to rumble. K