This Old House

Every three months or so, I get a new apartment. I don’t actually move somewhere new. I just keep rearranging everything.

Tacky posters of Tahiti? Moved ’em from the bedroom to the living room. Bookcases stuffed with Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter paperbacks in the living room? Moved ’em to the bedroom. Glass table where I feasted on tacos and take-out Chinese in the dining room? It’s in the kid’s room, groaning under the weight of various pieces of technology all designed to play very bad punk music very loudly.

Even my most prized possession—the circa-1880 riverboat gangway sign that reads “Gamblers and fancy women must sign up with captain before boat leaves for New Orleans”—jumps around my crib like a hungry flea in an empty dog pound.

I have no idea why I do this. Somehow, it makes me feel more productive. For three months, anyway.

But there’s an added bonus. It gives me insight into my work because media agencies do exactly the same thing. Everybody lives in the same space, but they’re constantly playing around with the furniture.

Take Interpublic. It has a giant buying network, Initiative; a massive negotiating unit, Magna Global; and another network, Universal McCann, that’s a conventional unbundled media-specialist sister to another IPG agency. The two buying networks will swap clients now and then to keep billings in the family, but they’ll also compete against each other.

WPP also has two brands, MindShare and The Media Edge, but they are evolving into a fluid structure; they act more like partners than siblings, pitching jointly and not competing against each other.

Omnicom has two brands, Creative Media and OMD, with distinctly different identities. One is entrepreneurial and planning-driven, the other basically a giant buying and research resource for its three sister shops. It’s no coincidence that two different combinations of Omnicom media specialists pitched Disney and Sony, the two biggest media reviews now under way.

Even the big independents look like perpetual mutating machines. Horizon Media used to focus on direct business; now it’s starting to make alliances with creative shops and media “strategists” like the Media Kitchen. And Carat is still pondering what condition its condition is in after digesting about $750 million of new business this year.

This is not the way the smart money was betting even a year ago. Then it looked like the major media networks would end up with pretty much the same model: a holding company running two network brands that operate independently of each other and share back-office functions. But in fact, they’re all marching to the beat of a different drummer.

Media shops are changing into every conceivable configuration almost weekly, not just because they keep buying each other but because there’s no best way to do media. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

This may drive clients crazy when they review. But if they don’t like what they see, they can wait three months and invite everybody back.

Because it appears the best model for a media agency is not to have a model at all.