Media Agency Report

he day after Mardi Gras, an uncharacteristic quiet descends on New Orleans. In the calm that followed the end of the Big Easy’s famous carnival this year, more than 1,000 ad professionals gathered on the banks the Mississippi at the New Orleans Hilton Riverside for the eighth annual American Association of Advertising Agencies Media Conference.

The attendees came to Southern Louisiana to reflect on an industry that has seen as much turbulence in the past year as Bourbon Street sees colored beads on Fat Tuesday. And nowhere is that upheaval more manifest than in the area of strategic planning, a media function that is bigger, more complex and more of a competitive weapon than ever before.

Before the conference kicked off, Adweek Media Editor Jack Feuer met in the Hilton’s Norwich Room with four of the top planners for a wide-ranging conversation about strategic media planning. Discussing how their discipline has changed—and what those changes mean—were Renetta McCann, CEO of Bcom3’s media agency, Starcom North America; Peter Gardiner, executive vice president, director of media services at Interpublic shop Deutsch Inc.; Tom Sassos, CEO of U.K. holding company Tempus Group’s CIA USA; and Mickey Marks, president and CEO of Omnicom media network Creative Media PhD.

ADWEEK: Let’s begin with a historical question. How has the role of a planner changed since the advent of media specialist agencies in the past decade?

RENETTA MCCANN: Somewhere in the past, we were in charge of drawing up flow charts, deciphering the target audiences on a demographic basis, and pretty much setting it up so the plan could beexecuted. [We were] also working with creatives or waiting for client-service researchers to come give us insights. Now a lot more of that responsibility is on us to come up with creative ideas to link the consumer to the brand. We’re much more capable; we’re focused on it; and as we’ve grown as media operations, we’ve invested the kind of money needed to give us the learning or the tools to do that in a better way. So I would say the biggest change is we’ve become participants in directing how the consumer comes in contact with the brand—and that’s elevated our position.

PETER GARDINER: Representing the view of an integrated agency, the role we operate in is very different. It used to be counting GRPs; now, it’s solely about business response and being part of the process of driving clients’ business, whatever goal that might be. Clearly, all the tools have gotten a lot better and more sophisticated. But the end result is extremely different than it was even 10 years ago.

TOM SASSOS: I’m not sure the question is how has the media company changed planning. I think what’s happening is the media is changing. We’re the keepers of access.

MICKEY MARKS: Creative Media was formed in 1984, not five or 10 years ago, but [even then], one of our primary principles was the integration of planning and buying, because really it was one of the first agencies with a strategic planning focus rather than just a buying service. But it’s still an excellent question and there are significant differences. Having spent more than half my career at full-service agencies versus the media specialists, one of those differences is the planner leads the business now. We have specifically not taken a route where we have an account management function, although that can be built into a media-specialist operation. We have let our planners and buyers serve as account managers as well; because of that, we are able to attract talent. Because the thing that really makes a difference to the client is the talent you are attracting to their business. So as a media specialist, you end up working overall with more people who love what they do and have chosen [media] as a profession. And I think that shows up in a lot of the work.

GARDINER: The people who work at Deutsch are interested in being around an integrated product and find that the narrowness of just media as a purview is one of the reasons why they’re there. As a media guy, I know that media is significantly important. So it’s difficult to talk about these questions as media service or nonmedia service, because nonmedia-service agencies and media services vary so greatly.

MARKS: It’s more a natural result of the chemistry that exists when you have various groups working for the same organization. We’ve found that media ideas get more focused and heard more when it’s a symbiotic relationship that the media professional has with the other functions within advertising and marketing. By creating an independent unit, it creates that symbiotic relationship that allows the media professional to interrelate more. But there are a lot of agencies, such as Deutsch, where you’ve been very successful in creating a level playing field.

MCCANN: I’m going to pick up on what Mickey said. One of the mantras we have over at Starcom is that we have to “separate to integrate.” I think the changing of media vehicles and the fact that consumers are now in control has influenced what has happened to our discipline, but I agree with Peter that the integration of our discipline into the whole product is still critical.

GARDINER: It depends on what you mean by product. Media, creative are organically done together. I mean, I’m side by side with the guy who runs direct response, with the guy who runs promotions. We present together. You can’t get more organic. And I’ve just found in working in media companies and agencies that it’s hard without having the physcial presence [of other advertising disciplines] to get true integration of ideas and results in focus. We see this with the clients, with some of the success we’ve had.

SASSOS: I guess I’m going to have to point out that the other side of the coin is we’re objective. We’re not driven by the need to do any one form of creative. We’re hopefully going to get to the era where the people who are managing our function are no longer media people. They’re a larger title. They offer a much broader service, and in that environment, people will need advice over simply more media vehicles.

ADWEEK: How has digital media impacted the planning function?

MARKS: A lot of really good thinking is going on, but we’ve not even seen the tip of the iceberg as to how digital media is going to impact planning. Right now, most of the work in that area is trying to envision what the pure digital environment will be, what the opportunities will be, how that will change, how we need to connect our brands within that environment. It hasn’t really impacted yet.

MCCANN: I do think it’s had an effect. It’s had an effect on accountability. Our interactive unit is getting instant access to results. It’s focusing the spotlight more on being data driven. When you amass these bits of data and work them through the plan, you can understand it, you can cut it. And digital technology has made plans more interative. I mean, the interactive guys may do two or three revisions a day. When I was a baby buyer, you did a plan once a year. It was heresy almost if you changed it more than once.

GARDINER: I agree that it’s still early, but we’ve seen dramatic impacts already. One: More consumers channel shift. People who used to use print brands now use them online and other places. Two: Channels are changing. More consumers are using stuff. Three: You have to have an integrated plan; it can’t just be your TV plan, your mass-media plan. Last and most important: We’re coming full circle back to where it’s got to be driven by the intimacy of the consumer channels—the creative.

ADWEEK: That’s a good seque to the competitive aspect of planning. The tug-of-war between media specialists and brand shops for strategic media planning. I think we know where everyone on the panel would stand on where strategic media planning should reside. But what about your clients? What do they say?

SASSOS: We actually hired a third-party company to see how we’re doing, what they really want from us now. And the feedback we got is that they’re looking for real, objective and leadership qualities. They’re looking for us to become part of the marketing department. They want to look at us as an objective company that they can count on for good advice … Every client we have is interested in it. Either they’ve raised the question, or they’re raising it now. In their minds, there’s a big debate. There’s a big misperception about what media service means to most clients, except the big global guys who are pretty sophisticated. Most think it’s cheaper [to split buying and planning between media specialists and brand shops].

MARKS: One of the founding principles of our company is integrating planning and buying. [Even when] we’re partnering with agencies, we’re fully integrated with their planning teams … the only way we can service a client’s business is to be fully integrated, either internally or with their own planning agencies.

ADWEEK: Just to get a sense of scope, what percentage of your clients are buying only, planning only, or planning and buying?

MCCANN: The only number I have in my head are billing numbers: Roughly half [of what] we’re doing is planning and buying.

GARDINER: Twenty percent buying only, 20 percent planning but not buying. And the remainder is everything.

SASSOS: We’re about 20 percent buying only, 80 percent full service [planning and buying].

MARKS: Roughly two-thirds full service and one-third where we’re partnering with an outside agency.

ADWEEK: Let’s move on to the relationship between planner and buyer. How have all the issues we’ve been discussing affected that relationship?

SASSOS: My last job was at a major agency, and I moved from running planning to running spot buying, and I was totally amazed by the change. The buyers could have been buying glasses, they could have been buying screws. They didn’t understand the clients they were working on. They didn’t understand the differences between target audiences. So I think the change is now there’s a real two-way process going on. We look for our buyers to give our clients feedback.

MCCANN: At our shop, our heritage is being both planners and buyers. In my junior years, I was buying and planning for whatever account I was working on. Now we’ve gone to something organizationally that pulls those two apart, but because of that heritage, our buyers and planners still line up on client teams. They’re sharing data back and forth. So for us, it’s a little different. We were there under one structure, and we’re still there now.

GARDINER: I agree with Tom, it all used to be different. Planning was different from buying … [But] we’re very tight these days. Today, we’ve put the onus on somebody who is cross-functional, a kind of brand media director who orchestrates all aspects of planning and whose job is to integrate. It’s one team.

MARKS: We consider the planner and buyer much like an art director and copywriter. You need both to create a great campaign.

ADWEEK: There have been lots of structural changes made to planning departments, including giving everything new names. What’s the best model for a strategic media planning department, and what should it be called?

GARDINER: Media.

MARKS: I agree. It’s not as important what it’s called but that the responsibilities are changing. A lot of the efforts to change what we call ourselves and what we do is really to help various constituencies that we work with understand what we do. We’re all fine just being planners and buyers, but calling ourselves asset allocators and investment strategists and communications counselors is really for external reasons, to help people integrate into the teams they work on.

MCCANN: I want to pick up on that because we have referred to our past, which was “tell me the frequency,” “tell me the GRP,” “show me the flow chart,” “move box one week to the left or the right.” While I think the inherent structure of how we operate and some of the things we do remains intact, I do think it’s important that we create or enhance the language we use to describe what we do. So we spend a lot more time talking about being consumer specialists because we are doing those deep dives into targeting. We spend more time talking about being contact specialists or contact architects because clients and other constituencies are still likely to say, “Oh, you’re just talking about national TV, print and radio.” No, we’re talking about advertising on boxes. We’re talking about cinema advertising. We’re talking about direct response. We’re talking about online and offline. So I do think it’s important that we change that language.

ADWEEK: We hear so much about how the ability to measure results is the biggest promise of the new media. Does that factor into what you do yet?

SASSOS: There are very few clients who don’t say something like “tell me what we’re getting for this money. Tell me what’s working and what’s not working.” And I think you’re right about how online rules are forcing a new conversation … One of the things I worry about is that clients don’t realize [that planning] is a combination of science and art. They don’t realize there is no perfect media mix. And I just don’t want this entire accountability issue to be forced into a box where it’s all science.

ADWEEK: Peter, how does this issue surface in a bundled agency?

GARDINER: We have this strategy group whose job is to do nothing but focus on business problems and what data we need to help support measurement. Their job is to see what’s measurable and what’s not. What’s different in our world is that we just don’t look at the media stuff, we look at the whole thing.

ADWEEK: Let’s discuss a question Mickey suggested for today’s roundtable. You are all in one way or another attached to a much larger global organization. Is bigger better? And since you brought it up, Mickey, why don’t you take first crack at it?

MARKS: There are advantages and disadvantages. Bigger is better because it has allowed us to amass the types of resources we need to stay competitive. In terms of servicing and idea generation, I don’t believe there is an advantage to being bigger. But most importantly, the entrepreneurial spirit, the idea that every person in the organization is truly contributing, is a type of energy that dwindles as you get larger.

GARDINER: There’s no question being part of Interpublic gives [Deutsch] access to better resources—global resources being the most important. And amassing size does give you some kind of energy. I have worked with big agency media services and seen examples of clout that blew my mind. But I’ve also seen the complete opposite of that on really big pieces of business. So it depends on strategies. I’ll take a smart person over a person with a lot of money.

MCCANN: I want to split some hairs with you guys on this. I think that depth is more important. If you have a rich client list, you can take what you’ve learned on client “A” and make it a best practice, and move it around your network, whether it’s global or a local florist client.

ADWEEK: How can you have depth without size?

MCCANN: Maybe I mean breadth instead, a variety of clients that get you exposed to different marketing situations, different targets, those things that make your planning much more robust than simply scale.

ADWEEK: Now let’s look at the future. Where do you think planning is going and what is it going to look like when it gets there?

MCCANN: It’s going to expand, but we’re going to have to delve into areas such as asset allocation, understanding ROI, being more sophisticated in how we slice targets. We might even have to wander off into that anthropological area.

ADWEEK: Every time we do these kinds of interviews, media people bring up anthropology.

MCCANN: Because we know that behavior is a richer benchmark of what a consumer will do and how they’ll interact with a brand than demographics are.

MARKS: You have to be able to live and breathe the way they do, and understand how they live.

MCCANN: It’s like that discussion we were having before [the roundtable began] about why our children switch from one trend to another. What’s the mechanism? Can we describe it? What’s the behavior? Can we predict it?

GARDINER: I agree we’re very closely connected to that account planning and consumer-buying thing that connects media behavior and really closes the loop on the consumer.

ADWEEK: That alone is a comment that would have been revolutionary five or 10 years ago. You have to be a marketer to be a good planner.

SASSOS: Our database will be the key.

MARKS: Ultimately, media planners need to coordinate with all the other aspects of the marketing plan. They need to have a clear appreciation of the fact that what they’re putting together is a campaign, that the campaign creates a personality for the brand, and that they need to understand the brand position. They’re not just generating impressions. They’re the contact points, or whatever vocabulary you want to use.