The Power Of Creative Thinking

It’s no secret the clout of the media agency in the client/agency/media relationship has been on the rise for years, but recent moves by several major media shops have only accelerated the trend. More and more, the industry is witnessing the birth and execution of the media-driven ad campaign. It’s a subject of debate whether that’s the result of weaker creative in the agency world, but one thing is irrefutable: media choices are so much more complex than ever before.

Media agencies are in effect reshaping themselves to provide services to their clients that go far beyond traditional media buying. They recognize the pressure that clients face in today’s ever-competitive marketplace to motivate on-the-go consumers to purchase their products, and they worry that if they don’t offer effective solutions, they’ll lose the client to another shop that will.

With the TV audience fragmented across hundreds of channels, the advent of the worldwide Web as a daily communications channel for millions of consumers, and other new brand-to-consumer touch points, media agencies started making a push into the strategic planning area several years ago to cover all those new touch points. But the transformation has picked up speed recently. Strategic planning has evolved into strategic marketing, with specific units being formed to interact with clients earlier than in the past. And these strategic marketing units are getting involved more in the creative process, too.

“It’s no longer the creative agency simply handing off the flow chart and the media agency making the buys,” says Alec Gerster, CEO of Initiative Worldwide. “There are emerging gaps in the service clients desire, and if we can’t fill those gaps, then our clients will go elsewhere. They are saying to [the media agencies] that they need more than just 30-second spots.”

“Given how competitive the marketplace is today, clients are looking for ideas across the board, they don’t care where those ideas come from,” echoes John Muszynski, CEO at Starcom USA. “If the media agencies can show the client we have big creative ideas, that we understand their business, we will keep their business. Planning has always been part of the media process, now planning is getting involved earlier, and so is media buying—sometimes in conjunction with creative being developed.”

Muszynski, who began his career 24 years ago on the planning side, says Starcom has always offered clients planning expertise in addition to buying, but today, that service has been ratcheted up even more. “Buying today is so much more than a 30-second spot,” he says. “Buying today is a search for the best way to engage an advertiser with a consumer. It can begin with doing customized, proprietary research for a client that will help that client develop the creative for the campaign. It can be offering creative insight.”

Muszynski is quick to add that there’s still plenty of collaboration between traditional creative agencies and buying agencies. “We can be another voice at the table, a complement rather than a competitor,” he explains. “The creative agencies that embrace our input win because it gives them more intellectual capital.”

On the other hand, David Verklin, CEO of Carat Americas, believes the media and creative sides of the business remain locked in battle to see who will be the primary strategic planning counsel to clients. At this point, he says, it’s unclear who will win. “It’s really a jump ball right now,” says Verklin.

Last month, Carat began its own branded entertainment unit, which Verklin called “a vital tool, offering advertisers protection from DVRs and commercial clutter, while reinforcing their branding before key audiences.” At the same time, Initiative created the new position of chief strategy officer, Initiative North America, and filled it with London transplant Mike Tunnicliffe, a 25-year planning veteran. “We’ve spent the last twelve months developing the communications planning process globally, and Mike has been a key part of that process,” notes Gerster. “Bringing him here to the U.S. ensures that we are using everything that we have globally to the best of our abilities.” Tunnicliffe, who reports directly to Gerster, will coordinate the planning teams attached to each client.

Initiative also imported Initiative Innovations, a strategic and creative marketing unit that had operated within the company’s European operation for several years. Earlier this month, the agency named former ABC and NBC marketing honcho Alan Cohen to head it.

Initiative and Carat are mere steps behind such mega-shops as Starcom, OMD, Mindshare and MPG, in offering bulked-up strategic planning and marketing, as well as brand entertainment opportunities. In January, OMD sibling media unit PHD brought in account planning veteran Peter Mears from its Canadian operation to New York to oversee planning across its roster of U.S. media clients. And MPG also recently started its own entertainment unit (although its hire of two trade journalists left many industry colleagues scratching their heads).

And just last week, Starcom created the new position of senior vp, strategic marketing, tapping Wendy Falk McGregor for the post. McGregor was most recently vp of marketing at Hyatt Hotels, but before that spent 10 years at Starcom’s sister agency, Leo Burnett, working on several global accounts, such as Kraft and McDonald’s.

At MindShare, the whole strategic planning area is being re-evaluated (almost by definition) following the departure of Ray Simko. One company insider describes the situation as “very sensitive.” Verklin contends that the media side stands a better chance at winning the strategic planning prize because creative shops are biased toward TV (that’s what they know best and do best, he says) and have an aversion to numbers—that is, creating metrics to both project and post-evaluate effectiveness of campaigns. “Clients suspect that creative agencies never saw a business problem that couldn’t be solved with a 30-second TV commercial,” quips Verklin.

Creative shops have a different point of view, however. Executives at those shops say you don’t have to be a media person to realize how many more consumer touch points have emerged in the last five or six years. And they point to evidence at their own shops that they are more media neutral and more metrics-focused than Verklin gives them credit for.

“I don’t see it as a battle, and I don’t believe it’s either-or,” says John Osborn, president/CEO of BBDO New York, referring to the strategic capabilities of media and creative shops. “It’s got to be both. We’ve found it extremely important and productive to work closely with our media partners [OMD and PHD] strategically and executionally.”

Osborn cites an internal BBDO process called InciteWork that develops accountability metrics used to develop insights and strategies for creative work. Those metrics and strategies are often shared with OMD or PHD when one or the other is handling media chores for a client for which BBDO is doing the creative.

For example, OMD has its own proprietary strategic process called Checkmate. “Where we share the relationship, our planners work with their planners to complete the loop on strategy.” says Osborn. “They develop ideas together. The tie that binds is creativity.”

Osborn also says creative shops are far less focused on TV than they once were. “We’re becoming media-agnostic everyday,” he says. “Again, it’s not either-or; we’re doing TV and a lot of other things here from print to outdoor to experiential marketing and viral marketing.”

Jim Poh, vp/media director at Miami-based independent Crispin Porter + Bogusky, agrees that media neutrality is important. He says that Crispin Porter has an internal unit known as the Cognitive Group that does a lot of consumer surveying to determine “where the best opportunities are” to reach different consumer segments by way of the channels that make the most sense. “A lot of our compensation is based on various metrics,” adds Poh.

The development of advanced strategic and planning services has been driven by client demand that agencies come to grips with the increasingly complex and fragmented grid of consumer options. When Carat won a huge piece of Procter & Gamble business last year, the agency created a dedicated in-house communications planning unit for the client.

That’s one way to do it, but there is no single template that agencies follow to provide these services. Indeed, each agency’s organizational chart for such products is unique. Even the terms “strategy” and “planning” are used “semi-interchangeably,” as Verklin puts it.

“We may all use different terms to describe what we are doing, but our goals are the same,” Gerster adds. “Advertisers are looking to ‘crack the code’ in this new technologically fragmented world, and we must find ways for them to do that.”

Some media agencies have a chief strategy officer, while others have a top planning executive—in some cases the responsibilities are quite similar. For example, Mark Stewart is chief strategy officer at Universal McCann, while PHD recently hired Mears as senior vp and head of account planning for its U.S. operations. Both executives are the top strategists at their agencies, and both work closely with the planning groups assigned to each of their shop’s clients.

“Planning is critical,” says Stewart. “It’s about buying and optimization, and it gets you productivity gains but not exponential gains.” Strategy is planning, but with a view that’s above the tactical day-to-day work that planners do for clients.

“Historically, planners have understood consumer actions but not motivations,” says Stewart. As a strategist, he continues, “I’m asking questions like, ‘Are [consumers] leaning back or forward? Is their mindset opt in or opt out? How do you understand and then present messages that consumers want to opt into?'”

Like Stewart, Mears of PHD is focused on consumer motivations and, just as importantly, applying that knowledge in meaningful ways to clients’ media and marketing strategies. “What I hope to be able to do is get to a deeper consumer understanding, firstly,” says the U.K. native, “and through that be able to offer up integrated multichannel solutions.”

At Carat, Bruce Dennler is the top strategist as director of planning, working with the planning teams assigned to each client. “We’ve embedded the strategy planning talent at the top of each account group, and then Bruce helps create processes and systems for clients,” says Verklin.

Other agencies have dedicated units with teams of strategic advisors who are assigned to as few as a single client, while some work on different client projects throughout the year, almost like an outside consultant. At OMD, for example, there’s a separate strategy division called Ignition that houses strategic advisors that are assigned to specific clients, explains Page Thompson, CEO of OMD North America. These strategists work with the account planners also assigned to clients but focus on three key areas: creative; the consumers’ relationship to media, and integrated channel planning. “These are the guys that are not biased for print or TV,” says Thompson. “They come in with an objectivity and they are also the gatekeepers of our consumer insight research.”

What does it all mean to clients? For one thing, some clients like McDonald’s have shifted significantly more advertising dollars from network TV to cable, says Thompson. And clients are clamoring for more strategic advice from their agencies, he notes. “This is only going to accelerate,” which is why OMD is pouring significantly more resources into its Ignition unit in the coming months. “It’s not just about reaching consumers anymore,” he says. “It’s about connecting with them.”

At Havas’ Media Planning Group, Coleen Kuehn runs the strategic planning group called Catalyst, which takes a slightly different approach. Instead of assigning strategic planners to a client on a full-time basis, teams of Catalyst strategists take on special projects at different clients. “We don’t have people dedicated to each client, and we think that helps bring a fresh perspective to the process,” says Kuehn. “We try to pick off a couple of clients at a time and spend six or eight weeks to do a deep dive with them to try to get a real understanding of how their business is changing.”

“For media agencies to succeed, there has to be a willingness to be involved in the entire marketing process, not just the media process,” Starcom’s Muszynski says. “Today, the consumer has gained control and the advertiser has to find them. And it is not always through TV or the printed page. It could be through nontraditional means like wireless, digital, niche print. There’s so much fragmentation that it’s become a complicated process. Today we have to find ways to engage the consumer, not just reach them with ad messages.”

Gerster cites Initiative’s use of the AOL “running man” logo (from the client’s print ads) in animated form during live college football telecasts as a good example of how a media agency has given its client an innovative way to reach consumers. It is his hope that the new unit, Initiative Innovations, will take that type of creativity a step further.

Sums up Gerster: “The media agencies who are capable of coming up with the most renaissance ideas, and executing them, are the agencies who will be the real winners.”