Art & Commerce: Gate Crashers Monsters

Full-service agencies are making a play for media dollars
Here’s what I really hate about horror movies: It’s the final scene in the film. The hero or heroine has–apparently–saved his or her friends, town, world, universe or the time stream. (Why do we assume time’s always a stream? Why not a freshwater lake? A babbling brook? A really big puddle?)
Whatever. The crazy serial killer, the giant lizard, the ugly ghost with glowing eyes or the malevolent petroleum jelly that eats people is history, and then–there’s a dinosaur egg they didn’t find. A tiny piece of petroleum jelly hangs on a door frame. The ugly ghost has an ugly sister lurking in the shadows. There’s a whole family of demented serial killers we didn’t know about.
Whatever. You don’t see “The End” on horror films anymore because they never do. The audience is always being set up for the sequel or, God help us, the sequels.
I was thinking about this when Doner won The May Co. media business earlier this month in competition with teams led by Carat and CIA Medianetwork. I perceived a philosophical link between that win to TBWA\Chiat\Day’s victory late last year in the Levi’s media review, when the shop successfully defended and added to its jeans business against, among others, TN Media. I recalled Publicis Hal Riney & Partners media director Jane Groft’s spirited defense of bundled planning and buying at the 4A’s conference in Florida earlier this year. She spoke on a panel that included some of the most formidable media agency executives in America.
I reminded myself that in sun-drunk Southern California, Rubin Postaer and Associates just informed me via press release that its in-house unit, RP Media, handles quite a bit of direct media business, thank you very much. I mused once again, with an admiring chuckle, on Lee Clow’s description of himself a while back as a “media artist.” And of course, in Austin, Texas, GSD&M has been making media reviews a Lone Star specialty for some time now.
Put it all together, and one realizes that, like a horror movie, the battle for media bucks is far from over, despite all the self-congratulations in which media agencies have indulged (and, yes, we’ve done our fair share of that in these pages as well).
The full-service shops–especially the ones with creative reputations–are like a little piece of petroleum jelly hanging on the door frame of media reviews. Sooner or later, we’re all going to find ourselves running out of the movie house again, screaming our heads off as petroleum jelly swallows our friends and neighbors.
It’s no accident that the full-service agencies winning or keeping media business in competitions are so often shops with creative reps. The best talents in the industry may have made hubris an art form, but they’re far from the dumbest monsters in the movie. They’re smart, they’re tough and they know there’s money to be made on the media side.
Full-service agencies still passionately believe they are the superior species. But they recognize that, in the 21st century, they are not automatically the lords of the advertising manor. The villagers pounding on the mansion gates are media agencies with global capabilities and a vigorous conviction that the future belongs to them.
Full-service shops can see the torches casting shadows on the castle walls, and they know what that portends.
When I visit the best creative agencies now–especially the up-and-coming shops on that precarious ledge of the growth curve, where successful boutiques either morph into major players or fall off the cliff–they have more questions for me than I have for them. And every query is about media.
How do the media agencies compete, they ask? What are their strengths? What do the clients think? Should they forge strategic alliances with the global media networks?
The established top shops, of course, are large enough to compete on their own with the media agencies or are part of holding companies that have global networks. They tend to be less inquisitive about the unbundled enemy–but no less determined to deliver effective media thinking to their clients, or successfully pursue media-only business.
The arrogance is still there, of course. Nobody can turn an innocently descriptive phrase like “media buying service” into a damning pejorative the way a full-service agency executive can do it. (The media shops, naturally, bristle at the phrase and are now calling themselves “communications agencies,” “media specialists” or some other impressive euphemism.) Still, nobody underestimates the full-service shops anymore.
I smell sequel.