Art & Commerce: Strategic Moves

Media agencies now impact medium and message
In 1953, Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth wrote a classic science- fiction novel called The Space Merchants. It posited a future in which advertising ran the world.
In the novel, consumerism is a civic duty and sinister technologies force people to desire and buy products. The story centers on the battle between two enormous global ad agencies for domination of the solar system. The protagonist is a young adman whose career depends on the results of a campaign to “persuade” people to colonize Venus, which unbeknownst to the target demo, is a hot, humid hellhole.
The book’s presumptions about the power of advertising are ludicrous, but that’s the way it looked back when everyone liked Ike. Still, in one important respect, these space merchants seem eerily modern: their notion of “strategy.”
Our hero is nominally a “Copywriter, Star Class,” but he isn’t a creative. He is a strategist. His main task is to formulate a message and then execute it. Yes, he determines the message, but the fate of his colonization campaign rests on the efficacy of his media plan.
I’m going out on a limb here and predicting that creative and media executives are not going to engage in wild shoot-outs on the steps of their office buildings, as the agency executives in Space Merchants do.
Still, the structural and personnel changes reshaping the nation’s media agencies, which we discuss in this issue’s Media Agency Report (page 48), are based on the same broad definition of strategy. It’s a new way of looking at the communication process, one that could produce the startling scenario of media shops competing directly against creative boutiques and management consultants for clients’ dollars.
Media shops are racing to staff up with market researchers, consumer modelers and other nontraditional (for media) areas of expertise.
Indeed, they are tinkering in diverse ways with their organizations, not just superficial name changes, like calling yourself Initiative instead of Western, or putting another level of executive hierarchy over your existing subsidiaries and calling it BDM. They are adding
new capabilities, especially marketing strategies.
Every change is designed to make a shop more competitive. What do you do when you get power?
You exercise it.
These new media agencies may not be touting interplanetary travel, but they are demanding and getting inclusion at the beginning of the strategic process, when the message and the medium are evaluated.
Publicly, at least, almost all media agency execs claim this new form of strategic services complements rather than conflicts with the creatives’ primary role: determining what the message should be.
The accelerating trend toward compensation rather than commission-based relationships between media agencies and clients is a telling indicator that media specialists are now expected to provide input into the appropriateness of the message itself.
The future is here, but media agencies may have to fight planners and creative consultants to own it. K