The Creative Media Agency

By Prajjal Saha and Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Planning & Buying | March 22, 2010
Media agencies are no longer restricted to just the number crunching bunch chained to their desks, drowning in statistics. They are becoming providers of holistic creative media solutions. afaqs! explores this gradual shift

Three years ago, Niyati Shah was a television producer with UTV Software, creating programmes for children. Now, the 31-year old works for media agency Starcom where she heads a specialist function called ACE (Activations and Consumer Excitement).

Vibhuti Mainkar, a company secretary based in Mumbai, deviated from the career her qualification would have taken her to and joined a marketing company first and later set up her own event management company. She then went to London and became a wedding planner! Two years ago, she relocated to India and through some people she knew, was introduced to Mindshare and its branded entertainment division. Her expertise in events helps her in BTL and other such activities.

Saket Sinha started out doing ad sales for Cinevista in 1994. Soon after, he moved on to a marketing services company called Media Pundits, where he handled events, promotions, brand activities in rural areas and outdoor. He stayed there for six years and then moved to media agency Mindshare three years ago.

A few years ago, the movement of people like Shah, Mainkar and Sinha would have been regarded as an odd match of skill-sets with a career stream, considering that media agencies have traditionally been known more for their number crunching skills to come up with an effective media plan while negotiating the best ad rates.

Shah is part of the new age media agency team, which now offers all sorts of specialised services in addition to its core function of media planning and buying. The offerings range from celebrity management to retail design and in-film placements to OOH and digital solutions - all under one roof. Starcom, for instance, even has professionals called colour scientists employees. They offer consultancy on the importance of colours in retail designing. Recently, Starcom's own staff designed the look and feel of The Mobile Stores chain (for its client Essar) across the length and breadth of the country, taking the pain of setting up these stores away from the client.

Media planning has come a long way from being just a clerical function in a full service agency. Media agencies are more independent and professional as a unit. Now, in the second phase of the transformation, a media agency has become a one-stop-solution shop for its clients. Holistic communication is the name of the game.

Starcom has scriptwriters, model coordinators, entertainment experts and sports experts on its rolls. It has even produced 30-second 'tactical' commercials for clients. Another big player, Mindshare, has its own approach. In Mindshare's case, the briefing process largely remains the same where the client usually wants a one-point contact in a media agency - someone who lives and breathes his brand.

More often than not, this contact point is the media planner heading the account. Typically, a client briefs the planner on what he wants. The latter, in turn, drafts a plan with his team and ropes in - depending on the plan's requirement - other specialists in the agency. Mindshare has experts for content, in-film placements and BTL, OOH experts, digital experts and so on. Each of them is briefed from the moment the media plan is drafted and they often give their inputs even on some of the media planning aspects involving their area of specialisation.

afaqs! explores what triggered this modification of media agencies beyond analytics into the domain of innovation and creative business solutions, the kind of talent this industry now attracts and what clients make of the new age media agency mindset.

Theirs to reason why

A lot of factors have gone into making media agencies 'thinking' outfits as opposed to just plain 'doing' ones. Most importantly, media fragmentation increased competition for brands while consumer attention spans declined. Media agencies realised that they couldn't survive by just offering media planning and buying services. To succeed in the long haul, they had to offer specialised services. And they started adapting gradually to the changed realities.

Interestingly, the game of cricket has contributed in this transformation. As cricket gained popularity, more brands lined up to be associated with the game, but with a limited number of ad spots during a match, only a few could be accommodated. That's when media agencies started finding innovative routes to integrate brands into the game, leading to the birth of various media properties in cricket like commentator mentions, 'Guess the score' applications, or tickers.

It was not that media agencies were short of innovative execution of ideas prior to this. Back in the mid-'90s, the idea of starting afternoon slots on TV also sprouted from a media agency. For instance, Madison Media co-produced the TV show Shanti for its client P&G to get better reach among housewives at a comparatively lower rate. But such ideas and plans were few and far between earlier. Now, things are moving rapidly.

Triggers of change

Many such instances and the further fragmentation of media - with Doordarshan, STAR, Zee and Sony being joined by a host of other channels - changed the media environment. With ad avoidance on television as high as 60-70 per cent (according to estimates), media agencies were forced to put on their thinking caps and find other ways to arrest consumer attention.

The fragmentation of media also meant that just betting on the game or popular prime time programmes wasn't enough any more. Until a few years ago, putting the client's money in the top five programmes during prime time would ensure a TVR of 15+. In fact, there have been around 25 shows which have delivered a TVR of 10+. Today, finding even five shows that consistently deliver a 6+ rating is a difficult task.

Besides, with the growing number of media platforms, it was important to keep the consumer at the centre. Taking the television commercial and putting it on radio as a jingle or placing the creative for print on outdoor didn't work anymore. This meant that media agencies had to constantly think of fresh ideas based on consumer insights.

The evolution of new media platforms such as digital, OOH, or private FM, for that matter, also shaped the new-age media agency. These were media platforms for which there were no tried and tested methods. It forced the media agencies to think differently.

In fact, most media agency executives accept the contribution of FM radio in developing innovative ideas. The lack of proper measurability in the medium made it more experimental which, in turn, spells 'creative'. This gave birth to several media properties other than regular radio spots - RJ mentions was one such.

In digital media the popularity of user-generated content forced media agencies to think like content creators and integrate the brand into content. Besides, the increasing number of awards be it the EMVIES, Goafest or Cannes, which bring recognition to a media agency's work also contributed a lot in changing the mindset and bringing creative talent to the media outfits. As the head of a large agency says, "Anyone who wants the rubber to hit the road would like to join a media agency."

Everyone loves a good innovation

It isn't just that media agencies transformed themselves solely for clients, brands or consumers. They also changed for their own sakes. Earlier, when media agencies were restricted only to media planning and buying services, there was little differentiation between them - except for the rates put forth to clients. Unfortunately, this gap between two agencies too was becoming almost negligible with time.

In such a scenario, media agencies started bringing in an 'edge' with add-ons. Ideas and innovations became the core in pitching for an account, especially for smaller media agencies which often couldn't match the rates offered by their larger opponents. Says a senior media planner, "These days while pitching for an account, rates are mentioned on the last slide of the presentation."

Fragmentation has forced media owners to become more receptive to innovative ideas. This could be because as long as there was a dominant player in the media space, media companies were quite resistant to innovation but with increasing clutter in traditional media such as TV and print, their own need to differentiate coincided with similar needs of brands.

In fact, media agencies say that media companies have been equal participants in a breakthrough idea for a brand. As a senior marketing head of a financial company says, "The 'one step beyond' attitude of media agencies and their relationship with media owners is what has led them to be more creative."

Clients, too, push for innovations. There are two specific sets of clients who have taken the lead in this. One lot was the sunrise sectors or the new-age companies like telecom whose need to communicate with consumers was totally different from the traditional sectors. These companies needed to educate consumers about their category. In such a scenario, the use of traditional media wasn't enough and it needed fresh thinking to reach out to clients.

Secondly, there are small companies with limited advertising budgets which inspired agencies to think differently. These companies wanted to maximise buzz around their brands with limited budgets. That required some clever thinking.

Besides these, existing traditional clients are also increasingly changing their expectations from media agencies. Their interaction with such agencies is becoming more frequent. In a creative agency, the grand idea for the brand doesn't change everyday. It may arrive once in six months or a year, but to communicate it in a relevant manner is a constant process and this is the media agency's job. It is a challenge that keeps agencies on their toes constantly, tracking competition, new emerging media, new shows on TV, pre and post campaign analyses and the like.

The fact that the media agency also holds the purse-strings of its clients, makes it more likely that clients will deal with it more often than their interactions with, say, a creative agency. It is important, therefore, that the agency has the right people working for it.

The brains

With a more creative orientation in its structure, outlook and services, a media agency has also altered the kind of talent it recruits. A degree of sophistication has crept into the function that, two decades ago, was considered back-end and clerical. Hiring the right person became more vital.

Media agencies tend to recruit from institutes such as the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA) and other reputed business schools. According to the Lintas-backed Northpoint Centre of Learning, both creative and media agencies today hire a similar kind of people - the only difference being the interest in specialisation. The media agency employee is no longer defensive about his profession vis--vis a creative person. There are more people who want to take up media planning and buying as a career. In a batch of 30, studying for the specialised Advertising, Media and Marketing Communications post graduate course at Northpoint, around 30 per cent opt for media (media owners as well as media agencies), 40 per cent for ad agencies and the remaining 30 go into brand management/research.

The emergence of new media is actually pushing a 'functional expertise plus ideation' mindset. This means that while 10 years ago, agencies looked for strong analytical skills and someone who was comfortable with statistics and mathematics, today it is also the ability to creatively solve business problems and think strategically and being 'contrarian' that scores high with a prospective employer.

Today's media agencies are looking for the four Cs in candidates: curiosity, creativity, collaboration and conviction. A questioning mind is likely to gain brownie points rather than one which simply churns out stat after stat.

Lintas Media Group's employment tests conducted on potential trainees actually go beyond checking analytical and data skills. The agency looks for passion and drive and prefers youngsters who have a hobby or a social commitment. That makes sense since what is needed after all is a combination of job related skills and people skills.

Media agencies are walking the talk. For instance, of Mindshare's 370-strong team there are 40-50 employees whose core responsibility is to just develop ideas across media platforms, and these employees may even specialise in a particular discipline like digital or OOH. Clearly, things are moving beyond functional media planning, which is also playing a role in making this profession more desirable.

HR experts further add that a few years ago, media planning mainly involved a fixed set of categories like FMCG, which made the job quite repetitive. Sunrise sectors offer more creativity in media planning and it has upped the function's aspirational quotient. Moreover, as the 'mother' arms of these media agencies in the West face tough times due to the slowdown in the economy, they are pumping in more money in the more profitable Indian verticals and setups. That investment is pushing the business forward.

One visible upside is that salaries in media planning have gone up. They used to be 20 per cent lower than the client servicing function in creative agencies a few years ago, but there's more or less a parity of salaries now. Another interesting point is that earlier, people got a grounding in media planning and then moved out to other fields. Now, people who had moved out for a while are coming back.

All is almost well

To cater to a client's needs for holistic solutions, some media agencies have launched specialist verticals across disciplines, but one has to question how many of these are actually viable, and how many exist just for the sake of having one. As HR experts point out, people from other industries are not really coming to media planning.

A sports expert for instance, would probably prefer to join a sports marketing outfit. What ends up happening is that for specialist verticals in media agencies, people from within the agency are promoted internally, while the core for these agencies remains media planning. "You may attract specialists, but you'll never hire the best in the field, who would obviously move to companies whose core specialisation matches their own skills," says a senior executive of a HR firm which specialises in advertising and media.

So how does one redefine the new media agency? Is it a media specialist, a communications specialist, a profit and loss sheet or a partner with creative agencies?

The answer to the above question seems to be a mix of all the above options. However, evidence suggests that the media agencies are in for more changes in the days to come.

(Based on interviews with Lynn de Souza, chairperson and chief executive officer, Lintas Media Group, N P Sathyamurthy, president and COO, Lintas Media Group, Nita Joshi, director, K&J Search, Prem Mehta of Northpoint Centre of Learning, Punitha Arumugam, CEO, Madison Media, R Gowthaman, leader, Mindshare South Asia, Ravi Kiran, chief executive officer, South Asia, Starcom MediaVest Group, Sanjay Tripathy, executive vice-president and head, marketing, HDFC Standard Life and Vikram Mehra, chief marketing officer, Tata Sky.)

© 2010 afaqs!