4As Management 2006

While media factories trot out cool tools, some shops soar via planning's creative side

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As context gains the upper hand over reach and frequency in media decisions, media planning is emerging as the key factor in a growing number of media account decisions.

Today's full-service media powerhouses now tout exotic planning capabilities along with negotiating clout, and claim to be masters of an ever-widening mix of media options.

"The media planning function has been elevated, and it's full-service media companies-those with access to the kind of tools, research and investments needed to navigate in an increasingly complex media landscape-driving the trend," says Renetta McCann, CEO of Bcom3 Group's Starcom North America, Chicago. The full-service media shop is increasingly using media planning as a lever in winning new business (AA, Dec. 31). But the trend is not universal.

A number of small and midsize ad agencies are running against the tide, declaring that smaller is better in media planning and the discipline's true power is being lost in the factorylike atmospheres of big media operations. Such agencies say their inspiration is coming from the U.K., where media planning is trickling back to the status of a specialty, once again handled by brand-planning agencies after media planning was taken over by media buying conglomerates there in the early 1990s.

As proof, Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, last fall quietly launched Connection, a planning unit within the full-service ad agency designed to underscore the shop's commitment to finding objective solutions, independent of any specific media options. "Our goal is to be truly neutral in finding the right solution, which is a departure for us and for most agencies," says Lisa Seward, media director at Fallon. "Very few shops can honestly claim to be neutral in their media planning because they are connected to big volume-buying operations with commitments to certain kinds of media."


Even before the unit was unveiled, Connection helped Fallon win creative assignments for Electronic Data Systems and VF Corp.'s Lee jeans, Ms. Seward says. Recently, Connection also played a key role in Fallon's win of media planning and buying responsibilities for Citibank and United Airlines. "We have proprietary systems for measuring and optimizing just like big media agencies, but the real power of media planning is where instincts and creativity come together with media tools, and that's what big media shops lack," says Ms. Seward.

According to Paul Woolmington, former vice chairman of WPP Group's giant Media Edge, New York, the size and bureaucracy of big media shops tend to stifle the kind of idea exchanges among diverse thinkers that lead to brilliant media planning. In reaction, last year Mr. Woolmington launched Media Kitchen, a 20-person creative media shop going after major planning and buying accounts, through a joint venture with Kirshenbaum Bond Creative Network. Recent wins include AT&T Broadband and USA Networks' USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel.

"Everyone talks about choosing the right solution, no matter what the media is, but a shop with a big broadcast advertising group will definitely have people who live and breathe broadcast, and those people are absolutely not media-neutral," Mr. Woolmington says. Effective media planning is equal parts art and science, and size has nothing to do with core skills, he contends. Mr. Woolmington has recruited "diversified" media experts, and at his shop, at least, he hopes to phase out the word "media planner" in favor of "communications strategist."

Wieden & Kennedy's New York office also has elevated media planning in its operations, creating a cross-discipline atmosphere where creatives sit near media experts to compare notes and share ideas. "Media is a philosophy at our agency, and we look at it in a very broad sense that might include architecture, fashion and art-all the ways people consume messages in our culture," says Justin Barocas, director of media planning at Wieden.

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Ground-level research, instincts and frequent brainstorms from one desk to another led to Wieden's successful TV advertising and guerrilla marketing campaign for Walt Disney Co. cable network ESPN's 2001 Summer X Games, says Mr. Barocas. "There's no book to look up ratings on the creative media we come up with that might involve skateboarders handing out X Games-branded beef jerky nationwide at convenience stores," he says. That ad/promotional effort, by the way, netted a 48% increase in ratings for the X Games, Mr. Barocas asserts.

Ultimately, media planning duties will continue to be decided more by account size and scope than by politics. Even small media shops agree that for major global accounts, centralized planning handled by a media giant with an international presence seems to make the best sense. So far, big media shops don't appear concerned about losing the momentum in media planning.

"In the future, we'll see more examples of clients naming a media planning agency of record for big accounts like General Motors Corp.," predicts Starcom's Ms. McCann. For example, Bcom3's GM Planworks, Detroit, won GM's $2.8 billion media planning account in 2000. "Creative agencies may try to control media planning in order to retain revenues while the economy is soft, but the explosion of media demands a wide range of knowledge that is hard to get without the kind of broad resources we have."

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