The relationship between media agencies and media owners sometimes gets strained.
Every September since 2009, the MOST Awards have celebrated media agencies and media owners who display outstanding professionalism. The awards were started to encourage better understanding of the roles of each player in the industry and to strengthen the relationships between the two.
In tough economic times like now, this relationship takes strain. While agencies and owners who spoke to The Media were quick to say that any tensions are an exception rather than a regular occurrence, they conceded that problems do arise. Many blamed the recession for putting more pressure on everyone, straining budgets – and tempers.
As Enver Groenewald, head of SYNRGY, says, “In the current economic environment, everyone is under pressure to do more with much less. Media owners are getting sales reps to do more and sell more products. Media agencies are trying to cut costs by loading planners and buyers with far more accounts than before – perhaps more than they can handle. Advertisers are under pressure because they have smaller budgets. This makes for a toxic, frustrating environment.”
A media owner (who asked to remain anonymous) told The Media recently that he started to refuse to see agency reps and instead insists on going straight to the client. The reason? He says reps are often unprofessional and unprepared, take a long time to revert with proposals and do not present appropriate opportunities to clients. Sometimes, the reps don’t seem to have done their research into what the media owner has to offer clients. This media owner says he will no longer be dealing with media agency reps, even though this is part of his job description, but rather work directly with the client.
There are also more and more complaints from media owners and clients that the agency staff they deal with are often too junior and not empowered enough or confident enough to make decisions on their own. Groenewald adds to this, saying: “Sales reps are too passive. They are order takers versus order makers.”
Agencies, on the other hand, complain that media owners don’t understand the financial strain they are under. Another frequent complaint is that certain owners can be disorganised and inefficient. One executive at a major agency cited a notorious example: “The SABC, for instance, where contracts are not forthcoming because of inefficiencies from their side.” Agencies are also squeezed in the face of a major skills shortage and a need to produce cheaper media for clients who are themselves trying to cut costs.
It is no wonder that the industry is having something of an existential crisis. However, there are plainly drawbacks to the breakdown of relations between clients and owners. In an increasingly specialised and fragmenting media landscape, agencies are still the entities that are best placed to do good research, says Josh Dovey, CEO of OMD.
Dovey says that he would not be bothered if media owners were to go directly to the client – it’s their loss. Generally, they don’t anyway, he adds. “Media owners want to talk to us because our job involves a lot of research. Competent marketers want to keep in touch with what’s happening on Planet Media, so they keep in touch with us.”
He maintains that agencies are in the best position to do the most appropriate strategy for a client. “Some clients think they have the sophistication to understand the market and prefer to do their own strategising,” he says, but this approach risks their becoming “inbred”, missing out on exposure to 99% of the market that’s available to them. Also, as a large agency, OMD have a lot of buying power and this can only benefit clients.
“Ninety percent of all advertising in South Africa is spent via media agencies, it’s a
R30 billion market. If you think you don’t need us (agencies), there’s a R30 billion industry that says you’re wrong,” Dovey adds.
For Celia Collins, the deputy managing director of Starcom Mediavest, the problem with going straight to the client “is that the client may not know the media owner’s full strategy. Or the client might go to the head of that company, whereas they actually need to go to the brand manager. This definitely breaks down relationships”.
Carat MD Quinton Jones says that most conflict arises when an owner approaches a client directly, or offers different rates to the client versus the agency. Also, “often media owners feel agencies slow down their ability to get advertising. Media agencies often find media owners uninformed and poor at servicing their needs”.
The best reps on both sides are the ones who are cognisant of the broader media landscape. The MOST Awards criteria make it clear that what makes for good relationships is thorough research into what the other side provides. The problem is, it is an inordinate task for squeezed and under-staffed agencies to assess each media owner’s proposal fully. So owners may go straight to clients because they feel that that they have not been properly considered.
“Small brands will get passed over. For instance, let’s say there’s a small newspaper from Putsonderwater. It serves a high LSM community there, it’s a great place to advertise, but a big agency in Jo’burg might not fairly consider it. My responsibility as a media owner is to sell my medium as quickly and as often as I can,” Groenewald says. “If I don’t get attention from a media agency, I’ll go to the client directly.”
Media owners often don’t understand the sheer volume of work agencies have to do, says Chris Botha, group managing director of The MediaShop. “The reality is that we deal with 20 to 30 media owners per day phoning with proposals. To sift through all this takes time.”
The recession is no excuse for sour relations, says Botha. All four aspects of the industry – agency, owner, creative and client – need to be on equal terms. At The MediaShop he says, the philosophy is that media owners are partners, not mere suppliers. “We take the media owners to the clients, so we all come up with a strategy together. Media owners know their medium better than we do. It’s about who can add more value for the client.
“If I found out someone at The MediaShop was treating a media owner like a supplier and not like a partner, they’d get their butt kicked. Media owners add to our business.” The MediaShop hold monthly briefings where they and the client can present to 100 or so owners.
Similarly, MEC hold an open day once a week where clients and owners can interact. “We also meet with the reps and also have internal meetings, especially with buyers, to check everything’s OK,” says Erica Gunning of MEC.
Gunning thinks that the MOST Awards are a great initiative in maintaining relationships, because “they keep people motivated to maintain relationships (and) show you that you are contributing positively”.
Groenewald, who used to be general manager of advertising at Avusa, says that when he was still where, the publisher thoroughly restructured and this helped. “The market is so competitive, so populated, we knew we couldn’t afford to be passive. So we engaged with the agency AND the client, but not at the expense of either.”
The key, he says, is communication. “The planners and reps should try put themselves in each others’ shoes. Don’t put the phone down in my ear, tell me what difficulties you’re having to encounter. This makes for a far more pleasant relationship,” he says.
Or as Collins puts it: “We need to become closer, to build those relationships. But how we do that in this economy will take some work. We need to understand the pressures we each face: deadlines and budgets and so on and we need to work as a team, not as individuals.”