The Media Agency: Life After Leverage

Agency business veteran Mike Drexler said a mouthful in his column on recently. In just a few hundred words, Mike encapsulates many of the trends and issues that are "Turning the Advertising Agency Business on its Ear," and those of us on the seller-side of the desk should pay close attention; the way in which we sell to media agencies may very well hang in the balance.

Drexler, former CEO of Optimedia and Worldwide Media Director at Ogilvy, illustrates the ferocious fight for primacy, identity and profits within the agency ranks. And he's particularly insightful on the crossroads facing the media agency; it can no longer fall back on its financial leverage as a selling point. "The old shibboleth about agency media "clout" never really was entirely accurate because most media deals were based on client spend not agency spend ... And the really big advertisers aren't happy about using their leverage for the smaller accounts at the agency."

If the media agency can no longer just flex its muscles and kick sand in the face of weakling publishers and broadcasters, it's got to become more of a true athlete: nimble, fast, multi-skilled. "What if the full service media agency becomes the lead? What if media agencies start adding "creatives" to their organizations as employees or strategic partners?" he asks, adding that the trend may be inevitable because "the digital world has also made media and creative almost inextricable."

This week's Drift is proudly underwritten by Bionic Advertising Systems, an advertising technology company focused on delivering innovative software that streamlines and automates media workflow for marketers, their advertising agencies, and publishers.

But what does all this arcane political maneuvering by agencies have to do with the media seller? Plenty. In the dozen-plus years that I've written The Drift I've spoken many times about the opportunity we have to bring new capabilities and new vitality to the agencies we sell to. I've advised that we stop treating agencies like indiscriminate ATM machines, and even suggested we give them a hug now and then. Truth is, at the very moment - this moment - when media agencies need most to evolve and diversify, they struggle with thin staffs and even thinner margins. Media companies and other sales organizations, by comparison, are relatively swift, deep and closer to the consumer experience. Forget the marriage of creative and media agencies: it's the marriage between publishers and media agencies that's the potential match-made-in-heaven.

So why doesn't it happen more often? One reason is that sellers get mixed messages from their agency contacts. The "big idea" conversation turns into a big lie. "Partner" has become a code word for patsy. But sellers share the blame. They take virtually all their cues from the overworked junior media planner and waste countless hours hammering away at a dying RFP process.

Look harder. Spend a few less hours chasing your spot on the shrinking RFP list and a few more working to connect with agency leadership. There's a promising future in a peer-to-peer relationship between the creative media company and the expansive media agency. And just a little time left to realize it.