The Missing Link

Any idiot can plan. It’s the buy that’s critical to success.” I heard these words in a meeting 15 years ago, spoken by the head of a successful “buying” company. Now, I’m used to a certain degree of good-natured competition between buying and planning, having been part of the media scene for almost 30 years. But never before or since have I heard that kind of nonsense from any credible source.

Of course, the debate still rages about the merits of planning versus buying, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. Neither, I may add, is the competition between the strategist and the executioner.

When I started at Benton & Bowles in the early 1970s, we used to plan, buy and create ads all in one place. It worked fine back then. The evolution of the media product and its eventual detachment from the full-service agency structure is a long and well-known story that continues today. We are changing as an industry in very exciting times, and the eventual outcome remains unclear (at least to this observer).

In my opinion, the media product is better served when planning and buying are integrated, either in a real-time structure under the same roof or through the rare partnership relationships that exist between companies like mine and advertising agencies, which keep the planning product aligned with creative.

When my partner, Rick Glosman, and I opened Creative Media in 1984, we started with the premise that planning and buying ideally should be integrated and linked to marketing in a clear continuum. And that intelligence and hard work can result in creative uses of media to further our clients’ objectives. We’ve taken this philosophy to a ridiculous extreme by sharing the same office for 20 years, but it works for us.

While on the subject, I’d like to add my two cents about the General Motors decision to consolidate media planning. Frankly, I’m baffled by this idea. The separation of planning from buying and the creative product “feels” to me like an assembly-line approach to car marketing unless competing companies can work seamlessly and harmoniously together, which isn’t likely to happen.

None of the affected companies will talk openly about this, but the cost savings that accrue through centralization better offset the less than ideal structure. The choice of a car, in my opinion, is an intensely personal decision with a fair amount of passion on the part of the buyer. This isn’t soap powder, after all, and one would think that integrating strategy with the buys as closely as possible is a logical way to capitalize on that fact. I hope it works for them, and time will tell.

The trades these days are full of discussion regarding the right structural media “model” for the future. The only consensus I see is that both the planning and buying products need upgrading, since they lack the nuances and metrics now available elsewhere in a highly technical world. We have begun the human-genome project but can’t get accurate commercial ratings. Maybe we’re afraid to find out! So we need more modeling and analytic research tools at the front end of the strategic process, as well as back-end evaluation and ROI products. If we are to thrive as an industry, we need to have a broader perspective to deal with communication and channel planning, convergence and accountability issues.

My vision of the future points to more integration of services, not less, more unique and different ways to create touch points with the consumer than traditional commercial messages in regularly scheduled programs. At a time when we need to be more accountable, planning separated from buying is not an ideal solution.

That said, I believe the real challenge for media professionals is refining all these products, then branding and marketing them effectively. There’s also the matter of paying for them. There is no doubt the marketplace for talent is hot, salaries are inflating and research tools will take their toll on everyone’s bottom line. We may need different disciplines to draw from: academia, anthropology, social sciences, etc. Scale and consolidation help offset the cost of providing these services and so will enlightened clients who recognize that intelligence and creativity are not commodities, like impressions or rating points.

Let’s keep an open mind and not be rigid about the right or wrong model. We cannot impose our structure on others. The good news is, these intellectual challenges will force us to seek talent from more intelligent sources. It will not be about whose model is right or wrong structurally, but rather who is smarter.

That’s the way it should be. It will elevate all of us.

Bob Hanley is a partner at Creative Media in New York.