Planning and buying: is it art, science or commodity? It’s a painful industry question. Media strategy, planning and buying shouldn’t be commodities, but our profession is seriously at risk of heading that way!
The Oxford English dictionary defines commodity as “an article of trade”, in other words, widely available and only differentiated by price.
I know that the whole concept of commoditisation seems repulsive to many strategists, planners and buyers, but if I look back over the past years, the creep has certainly been progressive and unrelenting.
If this trend does not stop, the future is bleak for us all – media agencies, advertising agencies, industry tertiary education bodies and, indeed, clients and their brands.
The process of advertising and marketing has always been strongly influenced by the individual, the personality with a strong (informed) view and an equally strong belief in their own understanding of human behaviour and how to influence it.
Commoditisation strips our profession of its worth, dulls the curiosity and creativity of media professionals and fuels the misplaced reliance on ‘objective’ media owner recommendations. This in turn will drive inflation and lower the return on investment of truly smart thinking and, ironically, undermine media owner financial health and wellbeing.
With so much at stake it seems illogical that collectively the industry stakeholders allow this erosion… but it seems they do. What’s driving the erosion and the shift to the dark side?
There are several factors, internal and external:
There is a growing trend to compare everything on price, the assumption being that quality can be maintained for less. This logic assumes that there is not a linear relationship between the price paid and the service rendered. The options are surprisingly simple. The lower the price the cheaper the resource, or for more expensive (experienced) resource, the less time invested in each project or campaign.
There is a growing lack of marketing skills and rapid churn. Across the board, there is a lack of tried and tested experienced marketing skills and hence, quick delivery of savings is often more important than medium to long-term brand growth. Churn is often less than 18 months and in this time, tangible benefits need to be demonstrated in order to justify the next career jump up the corporate ladder.
There are short and often unrealistic deadlines. The world is changing rapidly, but as I learnt from riding superbikes, it’s critical to look into the next curve rather than watching the front wheel. The latter is not only exhausting, but also potentially painful. Short-term business views often result in ineffective actions that never gain the traction required to make a difference. They create the illusion of working hard and encourage the advancement of those individuals who thrive on panic in order to avoid real thought. Panic attracts far more attention than efficiency.
Incomplete thinking leads to unnecessary revisions. You only get one opportunity to make a first impression or, as my father would say, “measure twice, cut once”. Based on feedback from my peers, I understand that often briefs are incomplete or lack critical information. It seems to be that it is more important to make progress in the wrong direction than it is to wait and get it right first time.
There is a growing use of abuse as a partnering strategy. Unlike olive trees, human beings do not bloom when constantly abused. They become dull, follow instructions and those not willing simply leave. What is left behind is exactly what we don’t need and ironically what marketers generally don’t want.
Then there are the issues of key performance indicators (KPI), lack of direction and leadership in the key media owners. There’s a saying currently doing the rounds that tomorrow will be less like yesterday than ever before. Across all media platforms, we find a growing lack of leadership. This issue results in a lack of vision, certainty and undermines the logic that one would expect to come through in trends. At the same time, marketer KPIs are becoming more sensitive and delivery on these has never been more important. Predicting some media owner trends can be likened to a five-year-old child pushing a three-wheeled grocery trolley. During conversations with media owners they often express their amazement that we are expected to predict, for example, television cost per rating point or rate inflation two years in advance, when internally they have little idea of what next month’s rate card will even look like.
Then, you have the hypocrisy of wanting solution and platform neutrality. “Deliver creative solutions but I won’t risk a solution if it’s not TV based…just in case.” A lack of experience often manifests in conservatism and hypocrisy.
Getting older: there is an over reliance on experience of senior members of media agencies due to the current status quo of existing young staff and a low new intake. The industry is not perceived as a sexy one, and those who do enter the environment may stay for a couple of years before leaving to become a client or to join a media owner. Staff are overworked, under resourced and need more training and mentorship. Which leads us to taking the quickest and easiest route. If a client says TV, we book a TV schedule. Creativity is removed from everyday thinking.
Training: There is a declining quality in tertiary bodies and little opportunity for on-the-job training as a consequence of economic pressures. The media industry is at its most fundamental a numbers industry. Training takes even longer when students are being taught how to calculate a percentage. Surely this is one of the most basic maths skills that everyone should know? That said, dues need to be given to the likes of the AAA School of Advertising and Amasa (the Advertising Media Association of South Africa) for doing their bit to not only educate students on the fundamentals of media, but also taking a genuine interest in ensuring these students have a job once they’ve finished their media courses.
Mentorship: There is an over reliance on structured mentorship rather than the age-old natural mentorship. This can also be attributed to the missing middle in the staffing pyramid at an agency. Senior management are busy fighting fires, attending client meetings, checking the numbers and cross managing numerous clients, which means that on-the-job training takes a back seat. It becomes easier to schedule an hour to teach three new staff and five existing staff members who aren’t getting it rather than offering one-on-one mentorship and coaching in a team environment.
Accountability: There’s a declining willingness to be held accountable due to short deadlines, poor briefs, unpredictable media owners and unrealistic marketer expectations for certainty. In addition I’ve found that talented professionals increasingly turn a blind eye to the poor performance of their colleagues, rather than challenging them. It’s key to remember that we thrive on individual contribution but we win (or lose) as one team.
It could be that between these two ends of the industry continuum we might find the future becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This way, demand and expectations for out-of -the-box thinking would be exposed as lip service or a red herring to satisfy ego rather than a realistic expectation.
And could the pending commoditisation of our profession be the cause of the growing number of senior media people going freelance? I think it is. It is at least a contributing factor. Winning a pitch based purely on price undermines everything that the industry should be striving to achieve: accountability, creativity and innovation. In other words, to offer media solutions that solve and address a specific marketing dilemma for an advertiser. Commoditisation is not sustainable, nor will it attract tomorrow’s thought leaders.
What is certain is that collectively our actions will shape the future of our profession. It is up to us as an industry to mould it in a sustainable direction where new blood will be excited to join the industry and want to be part of the collective spending power of our marketer’s ad rands.
Gordon Patterson is chairman of VivaKi SA, the holding company of Starcom MediaVest and Zenith Optimedia.
IMAGE: Copyright, FreePhotosAndArt.com
This story was first published in the September 2012 issue of The Media magazine.