Look in the dictionary and you will find the word strategy described as “a plan using skill in business, politics etc”. In media, combined with the word planning it has come to represent the brains behind the calculators; the use of creative thinking to deliver dynamic and highly effective advertising campaigns.
The development of strategic planning units within media departments was one of the key factors in the rise of the modern media independent. It helped media shops to stand on their own two feet and offer clients a truly valuable specialist service. But its has also spawned a fierce debate about how best creative media solutions should be delivered to the client.
The past few years has seen the arrival of specialist strategic shops that plan but don’t buy. Meanwhile the larger full service media agencies have been investing in people and research resources in a bid to boost their creative reputations. Within the agency world and particularly their strategic departments the question is being asked: what should the ideal media agency be like, and what is strategic planning?
Mark Palmer (pictured top right), head of communication strategy at OMD UK, believes the increased kudos of strategic planning in today’s market could lead to the reinvention of the full-service agency.“I think clients would like to go back to the days when they could find all the solutions from one agency. A media agency is able to handle this world because it understands the relationship between the brand and the media. It can be the map for clients,” he says.
Trista Grant, managing director of BBJ Media Services, underlines how important strategic credentials are as the communication spectrum becomes more diverse. The danger for media agencies she says is that traditional media planning may not always cut through: “If media agencies don’t adapt themselves they will die. Agencies should always be looking at new ways to communicate with the consumer since everyone knows consumers do not differentiate between different forms of communication.”
Acting on the courage of her convictions, Grant has just promoted Matthew Spencer to the newly created role of head of innovation. She explains: “Often when strategic planning teams are very close to the business they rely on tried and tested methods. Matthew’s brief is to think laterally.”
Grant believes the route a campaign takes to reach an audience should be determined ahead of the creative message. “It is essential that we form part of the central strategic planning in the early stages of a campaign, whether that is through traditional or non-traditional media routes.”
BBJ will not rule out any form of communication on the basis that it is non-traditional. For example, if it is decided the best way to advance a campaign is by word of mouth, BBJ will work with a PR agency. “It is less important who executes a campaign as who is involved in devising the communications strategy behind it,” says Grant.
Setting the trend
Those who have staked their reputations and often their own cash on launching businesses based solely on creative media, have a rather different view. Specialist boutiques argue that media agencies are jumping on the band wagon they set rolling. Independent agency Michaelides & Bednash was established five years ago and was the first to exclude buying from its offer to concentrate on providing communication solutions through innovative ideas.
Graham Bednash (pictured top left), managing partner at M&B, says: “With the proliferation of media, people can process advertising much more easily. It is a different landscape.” He believes confusion exists in the marketplace over what is meant by strategic planning. “A lot of people are using much cleverer media planning these days and calling it strategic planning. I prefer ‘media strategy’ and my definition is bringing brands alive in the media.”
Strategy becomes more important as clients look to long-term brand solutions rather than short-term shareholder-pleasers. “Strategy is a term which has been devalued over time,” says James Walker, director of Edge Network, which he describes as “a decision-focused marketing agency”. “We counsel clients collaboratively looking at the total business practice with the focused approach of ‘how can we improve your business’. And that has to come from an econometric, quantitative approach which looks to optimise long-term sales and profitability.”
Derek Morris, managing partner of Unity reinforces the point. While he concedes some media agencies have strong strategic divisions, he believes they are still “buying factories” and thus can’t be compared to the likes of Unity. “You can’t compare us to media agencies since we are media neutral and do not have a vested interest in the means to the ends,” he says. “It is difficult for a media buying company to come up with an answer that isn’t buying ads, in particularly buying TV space.”
Naturally the full service shops believe the opposite is true. Palmer at OMD UK, says the absence of a buying function can be a major drawback for independent boutiques. “At OMD UK we have always had an understanding of innovative cut- through of ideas and, indeed, our reputation is based on this.”
Miles Murphy, planning director at Interfocus, agrees. “Clients want strategic advice but it must be grounded in a practical understanding of implementation,” he says.
Blurring the boundaries
The arguments for and against strategic boutiques are set to disintegrate as boundaries within the marketplace blur. Already players with a non-media heritage, such as Interfocus, are operating within the same broad field as strategic boutiques and media agencies and taking the definition of strategic planning in new directions.
Murphy describes Interfocus as a multi-discipline agency with strategic planning at its core. In a recent campaign for US clothing retailer Eddie Bauer, it carried out a strategic review of the whole business, which resulted in the closure and reopening of its UK operation. The agency is now advising Eddie Bauer on its advertising and e-commerce delivery.
In this context, strategic planning could be said to resemble the work carried out by a management consultancy: the discipline is broad in scope and encompasses a wide range of related fields.
Andrew Aylett, planning director of Tarantula, explains: “Back in the Seventies and Eighties, planning was an extension of research and the role was very consumer-focused. Now things have moved on and agencies have clients asking us if their business approach is right. The role of strategic planner and management consultant is beginning to merge. ”
Aylett says Tarantula’s expertise is in two-way communications, including direct marketing, traditional promotions and advertising. Strategic planning is key to this process. The agency has creative in-house expertise and works with media buyers on response-led advertising campaigns.
“Traditionally, advertising has talked at people, now we are saying ‘you tell us what you think about the brand,” says Aylett, whose clients include Allied Domecq and Express Newspapers.
Like Unity, Zenith Media offshoot Zed claims to be “media neutral”. Jeff Hyams, managing director, says: “We support the brand through the line; the whole should have one synergy of strategy. ”
Hyams says below-the-line has not traditionally used research skills, something Zed is challenging. “As planners, we have access to all the information that clients need to give them the best advice.”
Zed’s solution is to merge together the account planning of creative media, with the data processing of direct marketing and the expertise of media planning. The agency buys press and direct marketing and plans, manages and evaluates TV and radio. Execution is generally carried out by Zenith Media buying groups.
The long-term future
The debate about clever media may however, be overtaken by a new perspective. WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell recently suggested that the future of advertising may not be based in separating media from creative. The need for strategic thinking in media is pretty much a given, the debate may now move onto whether creativity in media should join hands with creative advertising.