Is WPP channeling Frank Zappa? Probably not, but they are exorcising the ghost of Madison & Vine. In April, WPP's media agency, MindShare, dropped MindShare Entertainment as a stand-alone practice and squeezed it into a unit called "Invention." The MindShare brass appears to have reached a conclusion shared by many in the industry - that so-called branded entertainment is not a discipline unto itself but simply another paintbrush in the toolbox.
The problem for a media agency, however, is that they don't really own paintbrushes. They swing hammers. Clients still look to them mostly for nailing down media buys and driving "brand integrations" and "interstitial content" as added-value bonuses. Media agency drones will deny it, but they all know it's true. The client defers to the creative agency first for creative matters.
(At a media agency where I once worked, we created a clever brand integration deal in a popular reality show, and the client insisted that the creative agency be at the table and lead the discussion with the show's producers even though they had nothing to do with the initiative.)
MindShare's "invention" unit is a pretty ambitious way of circumventing tradition. It's really an attempt to build a creative agency department by another name. MindShare North America CEO Scott Neslund confessed as much to the press. It's a "new model," he said. "A full-service marketing agency powered by best-in-class media services." In other words, MindShare is no longer simply a purveyor of media deals, it's a full-service marketing agency.
And then in the same breath, in this publication, MindShare denied it was infringing on the turf of creative agencies like JWT and Ogilvy & Mather, both of which belong to the WPP family. "We think the ad agency has even a stronger role in the new process," said Neslund, who did not elaborate on this stronger role.
Here's how the official MindShare Web site explains it: "Invention will be the hub of the agency's creative thinking, bringing together experts across disciplines, including entertainment creation, sponsorship creation and amplification, retail, digital and strategic planning. ... Invention will define and develop the media-neutral communications platform and how it is manifested across the entire consumer journey, vitally fusing content and contact planning. The role of this group also encompasses the overseeing of creative development and production of content rooted in the platforms and journeys defined." Huh?
For years now, members of the mediaocracy, especially top execs like WPP's Irwin Gotlieb and Mark Goldstein, have been declaring that media agencies will never crawl back into the womb and become part of the creative agencies that gave them birth. Instead, it appears they are doing it their own way, giving birth to their own offspring.
Why? The margins are more substantial in creative work than in media assignments. The title of The Mothers of Invention's greatest album probably says it best: "We're Only in It for the Money."
The reality? Much of this so-called content will be invented elsewhere. Scripts for online content will be written by agency creatives, and the media agencies will hammer out the deals that get them uploaded. And as for the podbusters that networks now perennially tout at the upfronts, these interstitials are basically program outtakes and/or plot teasers that marketers will slip in the middle of ad pods. Again, brokered by media agency inventors.
At the upfronts this year, there was one exception to the rule that media agencies must be the ones stuck scheduling spot and plot placements: TNT touted a new content approach in which ads will be custom-matched to content in programs. In other words, if there is a scene about a wedding in an episode of Sex and the City, a bridal-shop spot will follow in the pod break.
These matchups apparently will not be brokered media agency inventors - they will be performed by a software program.
Richard Linnett is director of entertainment marketing at Fathom Communications. (email@example.com)