Ad Agency

Dismantling Accordion Media

Tom260“It does this,” he said, pulling his hands apart and then clasping them together repeatedly.  To me, it looked like he was playing an invisible accordion.  I was at my first agency gig, and this was one of my coworkers explaining how media planning and buying functions move from centers of excellence within a holding company to integrating directly with creative and other agency functions.

And I instantly got it.

Behind “dollars follow eyeballs,” there aren’t too many fundamental sayings about the media business that have remained true over the past few decades.  But the continual cycle of bundling and unbundling – coming together and pulling apart – still churns on.  Right now, we’re in the “centers of excellence” phase of the cycle, with holding companies consolidated media buying operations under one umbrella and servicing network agencies with that centralized function.

That model makes the most of a media agency’s combined spending clout, and gives holding company agencies a differentiator to set themselves apart from smaller shops.  The other model – the unbundled approach – allows for better advertiser integration and is supposedly better at generating bigger campaign ideas.

Media buying constantly cycles between these two extremes, with each cycle taking several years before we move into another one.  (The fact that the first movers within each cycle are able to pass this off to advertisers as “innovation” has not escaped me.)

Could we be seeing signs that the current cycle is ending and we’re about to pull apart again?  We’re seeing signs that perhaps moving media into its own centralized function isn’t the best thing if advertisers crave big ideas that have their foundations in the practically and realistically executable.

But why does the holding company agency world seem to believe that we have to travel between these two points over and over again?  Surely, much of the new collaboration tools and management consultant-approved processes would be able to accommodate a centralized structure and an integrated approach at the same time.

Perhaps all these goals can be achieved and the cycle be broken by simple including media specialists as early in the overall planning process as possible.  After all, it’s too often that media planning is added as an afterthought, resulting in great ideas that are challenging if not impossible to execute.

Great ideas can, indeed, come from anywhere.  Is it too much of a stretch to think that a media planner can combine some great thinking from the creative team with a new, innovative ad product that was just released by a forward-thinking publisher?  Perish the thought.

The bundle-unbundle cycle needs to be broken.  We’re wasting too much time, energy and money on organizational issues, failing to realize that it’s not about where the media people sit and who they report to – it’s about putting them in a position to bring their considerable knowledge and skillsets to bear on marketing challenges when they’re first identified, and not as the creative is heading out to the advertiser for approval.

We have whole new suites of tools that help enable that approach for both standalone media shops and holding company centers of excellence.  Why we need to limit our thinking to this unbreakable cycle of bundling and unbundling is a mystery.  Have holding company execs not heard of Slack, Skype or Google Hangouts?

It’s time to break the cycle.  Center of Excellence or Fully Integrated Services?  The answer is “both.”