Media experts strut their stuff but creativity rules the roost

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There have been numerous conversations over the past year or so where people considered to be among the smartest in the business warn about a "seismic shift" in advertising.

For once, we're not talking about the Internet.

The shift is away from a creative-driven approach to advertising and towards a "media-centric" model. The people talking up this change make a compelling case for it, causing listeners to question the fundamental structure on which the industry is balanced.

There is, however, one reason to be suspicious of their motives: Every one of the folks promoting media centricity is a media buying executive. That's not to say their views should be dismissed, only that they should be ingested with a healthy helping of skepticism.

In recent years, media buying executives have moved rapidly up the food chain, and the rise in status has been almost heady for a group of people long relegated to support positions. These executives toiled semi-anonymously in the media departments of ad agencies for years, often the last to be consulted, always the last to present in new-business pitches. ("Hey, listen David, I know you wanted 15 minutes on media but the creative presentation went long. You have three minutes, and lose the PowerPoint.")

Suddenly, these same executives find themselves as CEOs of multibillion-dollar media buying companies, near the top of the ladder and responsible for a bottom line. They also find themselves in one of the few places where innovation and ideas are bubbling up.

So you can excuse them if they get a bit carried away and indulge their egos when they tell you why the medium now is more important than the message.

Or you can feel a touch of fear because the reason they have risen so rapidly could be that they know what they're talking about.

Still, there's skepticism. Listen, I told one media exec who pitched me his theory last week, this is like arguing genetics vs. environment. The answer isn't one or the other; it's both.

True, the exec, Starcom IP's Rishad Tobaccowala, told me. But one comes first and one comes second, and the order can change.

As the ad business currently works, a creative team develops a campaign and then turns to the planners and buyers to put together a media schedule. Media specialists argue the better approach is first to figure out the best points at which to make contact with the target consumer, then figure out the ideal creative message to deliver.

Since I was in San Francisco when Rishad talked to me about this, and since San Francisco is ground zero for advertising creativity, I decided to test the media-first theory on some of the city's biggest names.

Hal Riney stared at me as if I were some alien creature. Actually froze and furrowed his brow and squinted with disbelief, unwilling to believe the question had been asked.

"That's nonsense," he said, and then again, "That's nonsense. Is it the work? Of course it is. We have been so eager to convince people that our business is other than what it is . . ." and he trailed off, unwilling to even discuss the matter any more.

Jeff Goodby, Rich Silverstein, Geoff Thompson and Chuck McBride were less stunned by the question, but gave similar answers. "Yes, it's the work. Of course it's the work," said TBWA/Chiat/Day's McBride. "Everything else is in support of the work. It's the only thing we have as an industry, our ideas. Without them, we're just professional opinion-givers."

Now these guys, too, have egos and agendas and turf. But when you hear the words "It's the work, dummy" in San Francisco, they just have a lot more credibility than when you hear them in New York or Chicago, or even L.A. For the admakers of San Francisco, the work is truly all that matters. Always has been, always will be.

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