The Real Neutrality

One of the more recent mantras of advertising agencies is, “We’re media-neutral.” And at a time when rapid technological change is eating into the very core of mass marketing, being media-neutral sounds like a pretty good thing to be—but it’s not enough. In fact, “media neutrality” is one little issue that demonstrates nearly everything that’s wrong about the advertising industry today—and also what it will take to fix it.

Media neutrality is a reaction to audience fragmentation and the diminished power of television. In the good old days of mass marketing, agencies didn’t need to be media-neutral, because television was the most efficient way to reach the most customers, and outbound messaging was the best way to drive business results. So, naturally, if mass advertising on television has lost effectiveness, it only makes sense for agencies to proclaim media neutrality and seek out better, more efficient ways to reach customers.

The fundamental problem with media neutrality as a rallying cry for the industry is that it perpetuates the false assumption that nearly all marketing problems are solved with an advertisement. If the past five years have proven anything, it’s that the entire game of customer engagement has fundamentally changed. Alongside the mature forms of outbound marketing, both perceptual (traditional advertising) and behavioral (direct marketing), we’ve all witnessed the rise of powerful technology-enabled inbound channels that have greatly expanded the spectrum of marketing. The Web was the first—and it has fundamentally changed the way customers make purchase decisions across a wide variety of categories. But the same digital technologies that power the Web are proliferating across dozens of new inbound, “on-demand” delivery platforms—on the TV, on the mobile phone, in the store and in the car.

Media neutrality became a natural reflex of advertising agencies when confronted with fundamental changes threatening their core business: By becoming neutral about the media, they could still remain committed to making more ads. But what clients truly need is not just media neutrality but what we might call “engagement neutrality.” To be engagement-neutral means having an unbiased ability to solve problems across perception, behavior, interaction and transaction. These four areas represent the broad totality of customer engagement as it stands today. And clients have marketing needs across all four of them, not just in the perceptual form of engagement that ad agencies built their businesses around in the previous era of mass marketing.

Engagement neutrality requires an ability to get to the heart of a client’s marketing problems and to craft solutions across all forms of customer engagement, not just outbound marketing. Agencies need to be “Swiss-style” neutral at the start of the planning process and not biased toward one form of customer engagement or another. But the tools and processes of agencies typically yield insights only for one form of engagement. Traditional ad agencies use the tools of account planning to yield target insights that in turn inform the creation of brand narratives. Direct marketers look at behavioral insights to yield contact strategies. Media companies look at audience insights to yield media plans that deliver reach and frequency at the lowest cost. And interactive companies look at user needs to craft experience plans that guide the construction of interactive experiences. Each process yields a practice- specific insight without answering the broader questions of which forms of engagement require priority investments in order to move the business forward. Or how a limited pool of marketing dollars should be allocated across all the channels in order to maximize ROI. Another way to put this is: Does the client really need a new set of ads, or is it the packaging that turns customers off? Our current discipline-specific processes cannot answer a question as seemingly simple as this one.

In order for the industry to move forward and for agencies to again occupy the seat at the CEO’s table that they lost to management consultants, agencies need new tools and processes that enable them to be truly engagement-neutral and to be thought of as holistic problem-solvers, not mere ad crafters. At R/GA, we are calling this process “Universal Planning,” and we are building the model to make it a reality. Universal Planning will enable clients to see the bigger picture of how best to invest their limited marketing dollars by holistically combining proven methods and tools that are currently discipline-specific. Universal Planning must work hand in hand with Universal Accountability to ensure that these investments generate the promised ROI for clients.

Engagement-neutral agencies will develop new forms of collaboration between themselves, clients and other outside partners all focused on solving a common set of marketing problems. Taking their inspiration from the feature-film business—where thousands of people from dozens of companies are put together in a purpose-built fashion to create a single solution (the feature itself)—the engagement-neutral agency will pioneer new methods and processes to work better and more efficiently. Teams will be built to solve particular problems. Resources will move more fluidly across client needs.

Finally, engagement-neutral agencies will demand new forms of compensation that reward results, efficiency and the creation of problem-solving ideas—not hours and resources expended. The upside of all of this is that we get to improve our margins, restore credibility to our industry and regain the respect of the CEO. The downside, if we fail to transform ourselves around engagement neutrality, is that next we’ll lose the respect of the CMO.

Bob Greenberg is chairman, CEO and chief creative officer at R/GA in New York, and a monthly columnist for ‘Adweek.’ He can be reached at