Should media agencies do creative?

As Initiative UK's planning director labels creative agencies "old-fashioned dinosaurs", Isabella Piasecka hears a mixed reaction from the industry about the media agency's proposed new unit.

Initiative UK set tongues wagging last week when it announced the launch of a new creative unit to outdo what its communications planning director Tony Manwaring described as the "old-fashioned dinosaurs" at creative agencies.

Manwaring accused existing creatives of struggling to keep pace with a rapidly changing media landscape and heralded the new division - yet to be named - as a superior model, more dynamic and better equipped to respond quickly to client needs.

He says: "This is a response to the digital world where things are moving minute by minute, yet the traditional ways of getting content solutions take weeks and months."

Manwaring's comments echo the widespread view that agencies have come full circle.

First it was creative shops such as BBH hiring media planners; now the media agencies are taking on advertising specialists to bolster their creative expertise.

So are we entering a new age of full-service agencies?

The reaction to Manwaring's comments has been mixed. While all of the media agencies polled by Media Week agreed that his statement was bold and timely, some questioned the black and white manner in which he rubbished the role of the advertising agency.

It is easy, one industry leader said, to make high claims for a unit that has yet to deliver.

Integrated campaigns

But Manwaring's claims point to a greater truth: that creativity is no longer the preserve of creative agencies. Media agencies are themselves exploring the area of creative services, as their clients increasingly demand flexible and integrated campaigns.

Mike Yershon, chief executive at Yershon Media Assessment, says: "All media buying agencies are expanding into every area of the communications mix."

Yershon, who has worked for some of the industry's top players, including Carat and McCann-Erickson, sees a particular opportunity in the digital space, a "virgin territory" that requires a whole new set of creative skills, which can more easily be covered in-house, with simple, desktop tools.

Stephen Allan, chief executive of Group M, agrees the concept of creativity has been turned on its head. He says: "The world is moving much faster; we need to be able to adapt campaigns as and when they're happening. The speed of turnover needed is critical.

"Some media agencies are moving towards creative services, because the content and media bits are inextricably linked; it's hard to separate the two."

A media agency developing a sponsorship opportunity might, for instance, want to illustrate a planning proposal with some creative visualisation work.

Moreover, creative agencies are not always well-placed to fulfil the needs of smaller clients, for whom advertising costs can be prohibitively expensive.

A local advertiser can avoid double agency fees by having everything under one roof.

Sam Learmonth is joint head of MediaCom's Create division, which was set up four years ago initially to create mocked-up media concepts for clients. It soon grew into a creative service for media that for whatever reason struggled to reach the production stage.

He insists his division is careful not to step on the toes of creative partners; the unit is a troubleshooter, offering creative solutions at good value.

He says: "People go to a creative agency for a certain kind of service; they come to us for a different kind of service. It's about clients' priorities."

Digital growth

And that, it seems, is the key message behind Initiative's announcement. Media agencies across the board are being forced to reassess their strategic direction in an ever-more complex environment.

The growth of digital, in particular, has prompted many to embrace non-traditional media such as PR and experiential marketing. As part of that realignment, some agencies may follow Initiative's lead in offering creative services.

But for some, it's still a step too far. Simon Marquis, advertising industry consultant and former chairman of ZenithOptimedia, believes the market for in-house creative work is limited, because large companies are reluctant to gamble their brand equity on an untested team. He says: "Great ads are not usually made in three days and there are plenty of clients who would not risk it.

"I suspect that although the creative agencies have some serious thinking to do about how to respond to the upheavals in media, they will be around for quite a while yet and are unlikely to hand over creative control and execution to media agencies industry-wide."

Initiative's latest offering will no doubt prick the interest of certain advertisers, but it may still be the exception and not the rule.

CASE STUDY: VAX IS BACK

- Three years ago, Vax approached MediaCom's Create division with a £300,000 budget to cover research, media and creative services

- The MediaCom unit worked closely with Vax, creating all of its TV adverts, infomercials, TV sponsorship credits, in-store point- of-sale advertising, DVD and online "how-to-use" guides

- Today, Vax has risen from eighth place to be the second biggest selling vacuum cleaner manufact-urer in the country, behind Dyson

- The campaign increased sales by 59% with key trade customers

- Sam Learmonth, joint head of MediaCom Create, said: "We can't, of course, claim all the credit for Vax's success story. But I think that its choice of using us really shows its innovative approach in retail today."

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