Diamonds in the Rough

Maybe it’s time to celebrate the smaller media players

The recent report in Adweek questioning the fate of small independent media agencies warrants attention. But the beauty of this business is that the prognosticators in the agency world never seem to get it right. Every year, agencies big and small are warned about the coming apocalypse (all services must be bundled, interactive departments are a must, network TV is dead, etc.). The truth is, companies with their clients’ best interests in mind will always survive.

Big media agencies aren’t right for every client, but neither are the small/midsize players. Both need to be understood and appreciated for their strengths (and weaknesses). We have heard so much about the “behemacoms.” It’s time to shine a light on the smaller media shops.

Advertising is about good ideas brilliantly executed. Being creative and innovative is the raison d’être for many of the smaller shops—every time, on every initiative. They live and die by it.

Smart clients know exceptional campaigns are delivered when the quality of the media product is comparable to that of the creative. Smaller shops treat media as a contributor to the process, not a byproduct of it. You leverage the equity of an idea and build a plan around the best expression of that idea. It’s an unbiased process. The buzz abroad is “media-neutral planning.” This is nothing new to companies that rely on ideas; there just never was a catchy jingle for it.

Most of us are in the media business because we love the challenge of connecting advertising to culture and entertainment. Media people who go beyond their traditional roles and engage creative people are rare. We’re not referring to the spreads-versus-pages debate but the ability to visualize a concept, understand the lifestyle and media consumption of the target, and extend ideas in innovative ways the creative teams haven’t considered.

The ability to be nimble is innate in midsize shops. They tend to be staffed vertically, with dedicated personnel handling a multitude of responsibilities and tasks. Individuals can craft their own roles according to their skills and the project at hand. This approach leads to quick response times and adaptability to change.

Creative/media integration is easier when size and proximity don’t get in the way. A smart media person residing inside the development arena can unify all the communication tools and consider at the outset the context in which the communication lives. Unbundling puts the responsibility of integrating the components squarely on the client. Not every client wants that role, or even knows they have it.

The bundling trend during the past 10 years was driven by a belief in clout and the desire to lower operational expenses. By now, any operational cost savings have been passed on to clients as lower fees. Clients may be paying less for media services, not necessarily media space.

Dollar volume can be a powerful negotiating tool, but there are other factors that will lead to a successful negotiation. Respected buyers and skilled negotiators (at shops big and small) know how to get the best rates, the right properties, the best positions and the most impactful added-value packages in all media forms.

The media Goliaths are looking to get margins back, which may explain why price isn’t en vogue and the focus is on intelligence, strategy and creativity. Well, isn’t that where midsize shops have been all along? It looks like the pendulum may be swinging back—and the smaller players are perfectly positioned for it.

Big agencies are now in the position of running high-volume, low-margin businesses that compete on price. Can you name any other healthy, stable categories with similar models? How about airlines and telecommunications? While the categories themselves are in tough straits, there are success stories in each: They happen to be the smaller players who reinvent the category, run healthy businesses and act as the thought leaders, if not the market leaders.

Just like the positioning of the best of the smaller shops.