The creeping influence of media planning over creative ideas

Sir Martin Sorrell stirred up some controversy in adland recently by suggesting media has become the lead discipline over creativity (and by implication account management). It seems to me a number of arguments on both sides of the debate are confused, maybe missing the key drivers at play when campaigns are being developed, in particular when outstanding work emerges.

There is no question the biggest cash investment by clients is the media cost and consequently a great deal of effort, skill and time is spent attempting to make the cash investment as efficient as possible; the old expression of trying to get ‘more bangs for your buck’. Also when the media boys and girls are on top form they can make a serious contribution to campaigns becoming seen and talked about.

The challenge is often a client issue based on who briefs who and when. Commons sense says brief both together, at the same time and let them work together to produce a coherent proposal that marries creative ideas with media solutions. If this doesn’t happen you can guarantee one will make a circle and the other will make a square. The next task is then getting the square in to a round hole.

Sir Martin, if I’m correct, seemed to imply that content would become downstream of media decisions, i.e. the creative brief only gets written once the media plan has been agreed, which I suggest would lead to further mediocrity in the standards of advertising.

The reason is the old hypothesis of each side of the brain, left and right side, same as the difference between media and creative. One without the other leaves a lot to be desired.

Some good examples of both partners working together.

Back in the ’90’s our agency picked up the Nike account but we were restricted to only working on specialist press in the UK, all the mainstream work coming from Portland, the W&K HQ. The spend on specialist media was a modest £1m annually. Our preferred media partner at the time was Manning Gottlieb Media, a new’ish independent at the time we had invested in. In conversation one day with Colin Gottlieb we suggested it was such a shame the ads in the running or tennis press were not being seen by a wider audience, our view was they were inspiring irrespective of whether or not the audience was a runner or not. Colin worked out the same money could buy nationwide posters for several months of the year with the benefit of obviously reaching the running fanatic and the casual viewer.

Our UK client bought the argument and the rest is history. The posters became one of the most awarded campaigns for years to come plus it elevated Nike from narrow specialist press in to looking like a very big and important brand. It is hard today to recall how significant this move was for Nike; the famous Cantona soccer 48 sheet was at a time when Nike had minimal involvement with soccer but the poster became, literally, a flag at major fixtures.

Had the media planning been done in isolation it is inevitable the rationale would confirm going down the specialist press route would be the most efficient use of media funds.

AMV did a great job for The Economist for years using outdoor to promote their title. The ‘wastage’ argument would have been extremely strong but the agency and client clearly believed their famous work would be hidden had they stuck to a narrow target audience. Who can forget “I never read The Economist” – management trainee aged 42. Fabulous.

The biggest challenge today is the slide in to multi-media campaign planning that fails to consider the reality of both the creative issues and the dissipation of funds across too many channels. I worked on a business critical brand strategy project recently that was signed off by the board and then handed to the marketing team to implement. Our role remained as oversight during the implementation and it very quickly went down hill. The client kept the media planning away from the creative partner for some weird reason and the end result was pretty dire.

When media and creative were side by side in the same building there was always a much better chance of getting something exceptional out of the door. The common goal being old fashioned words like ‘impact’, a word I rarely hear these days. Agencies like GGT, BBH, Lowes, BMP, WCRS et al a few decades ago produced campaigns that had genuine impact as a result of clever media thinking linked to strong creative treatments.

As the big groups like WPP become massive media players globally the people at the top of these mega operations become very powerful, they manage the biggest slug of cash by miles. Further many of them are also very smart people indeed. However how many of them have ever been the creator of a famous, award winning, effective campaigns? I don’t know in truth but I would bet a large amount of money on not too many. Copywriters are a very different breed with skills most of us do not possess. Great art directors see things most of us admire after the event but could never imagine it ourselves.

I know Sir Martin has been irritated in the past with the lacklustre performance of his agency networks from a creative perspective, in particular versus Omnicom’s stable of strong creative networks. To be fair Grey are doing a better and better job here and in the US, plus Y&R London are not too shabby by a long way. I would speculate it is all down to the leadership, the background of the top person and their natural bias based on their history. Finance get excited by the numbers, DM folk get excited by ROI, media folk get excited by speadsheet media planning, creative folk get excited by original, fresh, great ideas.    

Seems pretty clear to me.

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