Media Shops Morph Into Communications Ops

The term "media agency" is an anachronism. Instead, top executives said Thursday that planning and buying shops now describe themselves as "communications services" or "communications strategy" operations.

"We don't look at ourselves as media agencies anymore," said Steve Grubbs, CEO of PHD North America.

The newer labels are a product of the evolving roles of media shops, which now are heavily oriented toward providing clients with business solutions.

"The real successful media agencies understand the client's problems," said John Muszynski, CEO of Starcom USA. "There is not a CMO that wants to talk media."

Grubbs and Muszynski joined a slew of top media executives--MindShare North America CEO Marc Goldstein; Tim Spengler, the newly named chief activation officer at Initiative; MPG North America CEO Charlie Rutman; Steve Farella, President-CEO of TargetCast; and Jon Mandel, in transition from MediaCom, to GroupM but still without a title--at an Advertising Week panel discussion. And the consensus was that the "media agency" descriptor is a vestige of another era.

Accelerating the shift is the increasing cooperation between creative and media operations in forging a holistic solution. The executives agreed that an animating idea can come from either side--then it's up to both to execute in tandem. Muszynski said Starcom has one client that demands his shop be part of every creative discussion.

"We're looking for the best way to communicate with consumers and the entire palate of opportunities has to be looked at," Goldstein said.

Still, hurdles, silos and turf battles remain between creative and media shops. And one side can either slow down the other or eliminate a potential solution altogether.

Muszynski cited an example where the creative group was dragging its heels, so a media director started writing copy - which quickly got the creative shop moving. And he said Starcom this year transitioned from a television upfront to a "video upfront," where potentially 10-second spots on mobisodes were as important as :30s on "ER." But that puzzled some creatives.

"The creative shops had a very difficult time figuring out what the hell we were talking about," he said.

GroupM's Mandel said sometimes creative shops "can't tailor creative perfectly for a medium," so when the creative fails to deliver--transferring a television-based campaign to outdoor, for example--then a client walks away from the medium entirely.

Thus the question persists: If the lines between creative and media are blurring--or should--why don't agencies re-bundle the two operations?

Muszynski said some clients do that de facto. "A couple of clients refuse to call me Starcom," he said. "They still call me Leo Burnett."

Still, none of the executives gave any indication that unbundling is going away--although they all, save Farella, work for large media shops and not the boutique agencies that may argue in favor of a creative/media marriage.

Rutman said his experience is that "the clients actually prefer (planning and buying) residing with the media specialists."

As media agencies morph into communications strategists, the executives agreed that while television is still important--Mandel blasted the trade press for implying that it's completely withering and near demise--other outlets are gaining in emphasis.

"The money is following the behavior patterns of consumers," Rutman said. "The Internet has a seat at the adult table...We've been weaned a little bit off the crack-cocaine habit of TV."

Goldstein said that's resulted in clients changing tactics vis-à-vis the upfront, with an increasing willingness to bet on the scatter market. However, that strategy--which accelerated this year--still needs to be validated by market dynamics over the next several quarters. "The real story is still to come," he said.

Both Farella and Muszynski said television may be losing weight, but not video advertising--with broadband, mobile and other options. At Starcom, which has shifted to the aforementioned "video upfront," Muszynski said: "Our job now is to make our clients understand we're not living in a television world--we're living in a video world."

Farella said that shift is underway: "Clients aren't as enamored with television as they used to be, but they love video."

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