We've come a long way since the Golden Age of advertising when Bill Bernbach famously said, "An idea can turn to dust or magic depending on the talent that rubs against it."
Over the years, the media industry has witnessed significant transformations in leadership and direction.
In Bernbach's days, the modern concept of media agencies had not yet taken shape.
Nevertheless, the roots of decoupling media and creative can be traced back to pioneering companies of the 1960s, such as Kingsley, Manton and Palmer, Media Buying Services (from Canada), and The Media Department in the U.K.
Media legend Chris Ingram worked across all three companies, but change began in 1975 when he launched Chris Ingram Associates (CIA), the network that became one of the first truly international independent media agency networks.
Across the Channel, French adman Gilbert Gross had launched his independent media buying operation, SGGMD, in 1969 in Paris. Alongside Bruno Kemoun and Eryck Rebbouh, who joined the Gross enterprise in 1985, principal media buying was professionalized (establishing the inventory media buying model we know today). The Loi Sapin in 1993 meant internationalization was needed, and the company, which had been rebranded as Carat in the meantime, embarked on one of the most aggressive global media acquisition quests.
By this point, the 15% media commission was beyond doubt a thing of the past.
I lead. I do not follow. I run things. If you're lucky, I'll buy you. (H/T @NotSirSorrell)
At about the same time as Kemoun and Rebouh joined the Gross brothers, a man named Martin Sorrell traded the comfort of the Saatchi brothers for a small, relatively unknown company called Wireless and Plastic Products. In the first 18 months of WPP's newfound involvement in advertising, Sir Martin went on a spending spree, acquiring eighteen companies and increasing the market cap from GBP 1 million to GBP 150 million.
But it was what happened in 1987 onwards that changed everything: Sir Martin acquired JWT, Hill & Knowlton, Ogilvy & Mather, Y&R, Grey, and many more. In doing so, he created an entirely new holding company operating model.
Somewhere along the journey, David Ogilvy allegedly called his new master an "odious little jerk," while Chris Ingram stated during the takeover of his then holding company, Tempus, that he'd rather "lick an abattoir floor" than work for what was to become the most powerful ad man of the 21st Century.
Other holdings followed suit years later, such as Publicis' media stewardship under Jack Klues (ex-Leo Burnett), Laura Desmond, Rishad Tobaccowala, and the capable hands of Steve King.
And Omnicom, who can forget that historic photo of Maurice Levy and John Wren celebrating on a Parisian rooftop.
All the while, IPG, Havas, and Dentsu pursued a similar consolidation strategy, leading to approximately two-thirds of all media investments worldwide being funneled through the six major holding groups' media buying operations by 2010.
The Turn of the Century
But let's go back to the turn of the century. Independent media-buying had become an established business, separate from the constraints of creative development, yet consistently creating new, efficient ways for brands to connect with people. What used to be the era of Mad Men slowly and steadily transformed into a bean-counting business.
The new Millennium also saw media auditing mature, primarily driven by international players such as Billetts, Media Audits, Fairbrother White Europe, R3, Cortex, and Spatial Access. Mostly led by ex-agency heavyweights, these companies provided independent performance benchmarking and pitch expertise to advertisers who were yet to grasp the intricacies of the modern media world.
In stark contrast to the growing bean-counter mentality, Naked Communications became one of the most successful strategic media agencies in the new decade. Launched in 2000 by the formidable trio of John Harlow, Jon Wilkins, and Will Collin, Naked became a hallmark of what we to this day can refer to as modern communications planning. Without a doubt, the people who passed through the school of brilliant misfits continue to have a tremendous impact in a world increasingly flooded by a sea of sameness.
But the turn of the century also marked the beginning of a trend that persists to this day, characterized by a shift in power and budgets from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley. The industry witnessed fragmentation, digitization, and an insatiable appetite for ever-cheaper media. While the mirage of tech-effectiveness is beginning to evaporate, we should reflect on the impact social media continues to have on young people and societies at large.
Clouds Have Gathered
Over the past five decades, the advertising industry has transitioned from one celebrated for understanding human motivation and drivers to one infamous for tracking people's every move. Consequently, we are faced with a situation where 9 out of 10 ads are never noticed, let alone remembered, by people. To make matters worse, people now actively pay to avoid seeing the ads we put in front of them.
Apart from a few independent media agencies, the landscape has become entirely indistinguishable, with every agency striving to be everything to everyone. An illustration of this acceleration is the Agency as a Service (AaaS) model, in which holding company agencies plug into existing client operating systems, with the aim of further automating (and dehumanizing) the advertising and media process.
Fraud in the media supply chain is reaching record levels, with as much as $1 in every $5 unaccounted for.
Going into the 2024 U.S. Presidential election, there's no evidence this is about to improve. It is challenged by truth-tellers like Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman, ad fraud analyst Agustine Fou, or the occasional industry research (which typically results in no real action being taken).
Apart from a few European trade associations, there seems to be no industry-wide desire to clean up this unprecedented level of obfuscation.
But There Is Also Light
The single most important thing today is the role research into media and comms planning is playing.
Vast studies repeatedly show that the combination of magic and science is the main driver of effectiveness.
Some remain anchored in Ephron's decades-old recency studies, but we should pay more attention to lessons learned from research authored by the likes of Les Binet & Peter Fields, Paul Dyson, Byron Sharp, Richard Shotton, and many others.
Other good news is that trade associations are now playing an important role in promoting media planning and media management more broadly, most notably the WFA, ISBA, IPA, and ANA.
There is another glimmer of hope in all of this: advertising and media are no longer all about size and volume.
One can only hope that more and more advertisers are attracted by what independent media agencies can offer, in terms of service, flexibility, and independent planning-led thinking, all aimed at delivering business results. One could perhaps even argue that there would never be a better time than now to launch a new Naked.
Which brings us back to talent (because talent will always be more important than machines). Let us hope that the upcoming leaders of today and tomorrow remain in the business in the foreseeable future. It only takes a minute to look back into recent history to see how much better our industry is with the likes of Matt Baxter (now at Huge), Daryl Lee (now at McCann), Jon Wilkins (formerly at Accenture Song), Mainardo de Nardis (now in tech), and Gerry d'Angelo (formerly at P&G) supporting and promoting our media endeavors.
As Bernbach also famously said, "Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art."
I, for one, am convinced that this will become the winning formula for the media agency of tomorrow.