With data and automation playing a key role in modern media agencies, has media planning lost its human connection?
Whether media planning is an art or a science has been not only been a perennial debate, but it has also provided the title for the local industry textbook on the subject. Detractors of the discipline have tended to point to an over-reliance on research for decision-making, that then becomes blinkered and lacking in nuance.
More recently, the denigrators have pointed to the advancement of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) as well as the deluge of digital data now available to marketers and advertisers, to tip the scales of the argument heavily towards the science end of the spectrum.
An extension of this line of thinking is to suggest that media practitioners have lost sight of the humans in the equation.
In fact, Marco Santos, managing director of OMD, argues that “omni”, which he describes as “a one technology platform providing real-time data, analytics and precision marketing capabilities… enables us to be people obsessed… (It) ultimately delivers an effective, seamless and entertaining media experience building richer relationships between people and brands”.
His Omnicom colleague at PHD, Wayne Bishop, similarly enthuses over the “beautifully visualised dashboards” delivered by their planning and collaboration platform or business ecosystem, SOURCE; and pragmatically points out that such “tech automation to make lives better…freeing up head hours”.
MediaCom CEO, Ashish Williams, underlines that automation “allows humans time to think” and for agencies to put “human capital in the right place” focusing on strategic thinking rather than engaging in the laborious grind of manually crunching numbers.
The prevailing view is that removing these previously time-consuming phases of analysis allows media practitioners to build better relationships with their clients, to work more closely with them in defining the business problems they face and partner with them to craft business building solutions. Bishop explains that it gives media agencies a greater ability to build trust, that fundamentally important human connection, with their clients: In PHD’s case, it has enabled them to assume a more “consultative role”.
The changing agency ecosystem has impacted on the type of people agencies are looking to recruit. Williams points out that while the agency now employs fewer people, it carries a higher wage bill, as specialisms do not come cheap. Bishop suggests the industry is employing better quality staff, and points to the staff profile becoming younger. He attributes this not only to their stamina but also to their appreciation of the efficiencies of tech.
Besides efficiently dealing with data, another benefit of the proprietary agency systems is that they are designed to facilitate team interaction across the globe, bringing more human brain power and experience to bear on the challenge growing client businesses. For agency staff, it means that location is no longer an obstacle to being exposed to the best global minds and expertise. In the case of MediaCom – its strapline is ‘People First, Better Results’ – Williams elaborates on how 7 200 hours of training material are available to help staff explore and unlock their growth potential.
Insight into human targets
Media agency staff have benefitted from the technological advances, but do they have a better understanding of the consumers they are trying to influence? Making sense of multi-source data is one way of way of gaining insight into these human targets.
Lwandile Qokweni, CEO, explains that at Wavemaker, “truly understanding one’s client and customers is aided by various tools powered by a live panel, which is an digital study of consumer media and buying behaviour…we also rely on a number of industry tools powered by the AMPS study, partner information especially in the digital sphere including but not limited to listening tools on social, google analytics, etc.”, but points out that “data is merely information. The crucial difference is a process that allows you to convert the data into actionable insights to empower the brand to bring consumers to making a purchase.”
Carat’s group strategy director SA/SSA, Graham Deneys, endorses this view, saying “we are always looking for insight from data”. He argues that “humans and human truth have always been paramount to media planning and strategy” and points out that Carat has developed an actual stand-alone strategy department that focuses on developing insights and nurturing planning output in briefs accordingly. “This function services all clients at Carat and is positioned side by side with account directors who control the larger client relationship including strategic deliverables.”
Claudelle Naidoo, MediaCom’s managing director (and previously head of insights and new business director) stresses that the company’s ‘The System’ promotes accountability and better return on investment (ROI). However, such systems are ultimately tools. PHD’s Bishop points out that their successful use is ultimately dependent on a human component. It is a person who makes decisions around the definition of the KPIs that are input into the system, for example.
Deneys points out that “creative and media agencies should be basing all work on one unifying insight between them… this approach allows us to deliver effective integrated campaigns across bought, owned and earned channels with a focus on touch-points that will deliver on client objectives and assist in guiding creative articulation”.
The media ‘orchestra’
Byron John, Vizeum JHB MD, further expands on the Dentsu Aegis perspective saying the company has “invested a lot of time and money in consolidating the media ‘orchestra’ under one roof…to achieve what we call ‘ecosystem planning’.” In his explanation of this approach, he lists “communication strategists, brand managers, CMOs, creatives, designers, copy writers, media strategists, buyers, planners, data crunchers, researchers, search, social, programmatic specialists etc”. Each, he says, “knows the role they play, the importance of what they bring to the party and the mutual collaboration required to build the best campaign possible”. This suggests media practitioners now require not only good communication skills but also high levels of emotional intelligence.
A treasured tenet of global media agencies is ‘share and apply’. This, together with clear definitions of best practice, may suggest staff in local offices might be somewhat constrained in the exercise of their craft. However, Mindshare’s MD, Sune Beyers, recalls the challenge of finding the local nodal idea around which the thinking could be built for their successful KFC pitch. Having young graduates capable of tapping into local culture and lingo facilitated that.
Of course, media agencies are not microcosms of our country. Isla Prentis heads up the recently established human intelligence unit Tirisano, at The MediaShop. The Tswana word translates into “to work together with little effort”. She believes it is crucial to constantly question, learn and explore the world around us, and that numerate media practitioners should never forget to put on the human hat and look through the consumer’s lens. She points out that “Sandton is not South Africa” and even a diverse agency team needs to make an effort to understand the countries complexities and local nuances.
To this end, cross-disciplinary agency groups have been undertaking a series of immersions, the most recent of which was an exploration of Thohoyondou. Getting out from behind one’s computer and exploring the world of the actual people who buy the products on is helping to sell, should certainly provide different insights from those quantitative can provide.
Traditional and digital disciplines
The newest agency in the Park Advertising stable, Meta Media, is run by Kagiso Musi, a newcomer to the media agency world, a signal that this is not intended to be another media agency. An experienced marketing and communications executive, with both Wunderman and Jupiter Drawing Room on her CV, she also stresses the importance of knowing consumers and being out in the real world.
Built in a creative agency environment her view is that always asking questions, especially “so what” is the way to get to meaningful insights: It is not enough to know that Generations draws large audiences, one needs to know why that is. She is determinedly working to eradicate the historic divide between the traditional and digital disciplines in the agency, insisting that everyone in the teams has the broad exposure that will give them rounded and granular insights into real consumers.
Ana Carrapichano, founder and CEO of Mediology affirms, “Media agencies (should) strive to understand consumers, at least, that should be in our DNA… Media and creative should work hand in hand – this is where the best work comes from”. She says “we have and are investing heavily in our consumer insights division… our aim is that this division becomes the HEART of the agency – feeding trends and insights to our strategy teams, both online and offline… Our aim is that our insights team understand target markets, media and brands to the fullest. Not only from a desktop point of view but full brand on-the-ground target market immersions”.
The media agency ecosystem is changing: Automation has brought efficiencies and speed to some of the processes, but it is not a substitute for human intelligence in defining and solving marketing problems. Likewise, multi-source quantitative data is not necessarily the best way to understand the motivations of real human beings. Some media agencies have identified this as an opportunity and have set about making it a differentiator.
Having spent some decades working in the media agencies, Britta Reid now relishes the opportunity to take an independent perspective on the South African media world, especially during this time of radical research transformation.
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