Tom Denford
By Tom Denford
Feb 14, 2013 6:21:02 PM

Media Agencies All Sound The Same. Why?


Media agency networks are seriously huge companies: vast networks of people and offices in 100+ countries of the world, big money management machines but with a heart of creativity, advising clients on billions of dollars investment each week. Pretty impressive scale for an industry which is barely 30 years old.

The clients of media agencies rarely get exposure to any of their inner workings because agency brands generally report into larger holding companies like the giants WPP, Publicis or Omnicom. This makes understanding the very complex workings of their financial reporting difficult as it is blended with everything else and so identifying a media agency's business performance is largely impossible. But let's just say they are big, dealing with big numbers and securing a healthy profit on those numbers each week.

Media agencies most often win and lose clients on their ability to serve the clients need. Given that marketing clients some in all shapes and sizes and have many varying needs you'd be forgiven for assuming that media agencies would be keen to differentiate their brands significantly to appeal to certain types of client need.

Not so.

Media agency brands have traditionally been accused of being hard to distinguish, all essentially standing for the same say-what-you-hope values of trust, probity and reassurance in much the same way that banks have done for generations. And we know how that story ends.

Agencies tend to use a similar common script, perhaps borrowed from each other as people move across town: They are telling familiar stories about billings scale, rankings, network reach and complex tools; they have have obliquely-named planning processes, like a Checkmate, Navigator, Human Experience Framework etc all of which without exemption follow near identical patterns of planning process in answering the five basic planning questions; Who, Where, What, When and How?). Agency credentials presentations are PowerPoint heavy, generally charmless, rarely delivered with any empathy or humour and usually positioned as a privileged learning opportunity for the client. This means by the way that where an agency exec is bold and brave and with charming humility they tend to easily break through and reach a cynical and distrustful client.

I met recently with a senior exec of an agency network who retold with great pride a story of the long process they were going through to examine their agency's positioning and brand, this resulted in their planning process being rewritten, which in turn delivered against the promise made in their shiny new strap line. It all sounded pretty impressive.

I didn't tell him that on my desk at that exact moment, was a document sent to me by a client discussing moving some of their media account to his media agency. The client had written a very comprehensive and well considered rationale, yet didn't make one reference to the agency's brand, their positioning, their strap line or their planning process. In short, it was not a consideration in any way for why that agency was an appropriate partner. Agency brands and their efforts to differentiate may not be being factored into clients' decision-making.

This example illustrates some of the disconnects we see in agency branding and product development - they still remain hard to differentiate and are frequently not meeting the real-world business demands of clients.