Communication architects

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In advertising's latest evolutionary twist, Madison Avenue's biggest media buyers are recasting themselves as "communication architects," and are even starting to tinker with the creative elements of ads.

The combination of smaller media profit margins and a tough economy have forced media agencies to ramp up their media planning, and may have a greater effect on winning accounts these days than media negotiation skills.

Touting immense media research capabilities and microscopic knowledge about consumers' habits, media agencies are asserting themselves earlier into the process of developing advertising, often coming up with creative ideas of their own while working more closely with creative shops to hatch ideas.

The theory goes that since media has fragmented from TV, radio and print into endless "connection points" that now include the Internet, events, promotions, direct mail, sponsorships, music, fashion and "buzz," no one but a communication architect is equipped to orchestrate a strategy to reach increasingly diverse consumer groups.

"In a way, media agencies have followed the IBM model-instead of selling hardware and a la carte services, they're using the lever of media planning to sell the whole marketing solution to clients," says Paul Kim, a senior media analyst with investment banker Kaufman Bros., New York.

Before communication architecture emerged, media agencies were just one element in a process that was dominated by account managers and creatives, says Ray Simko, president of strategic planning for WPP Group's MindShare North America. But "now we're in a much more central position, acting as the referee, and clients are asking us to build bridges among the various [advertising] suppliers," he says.

It seems to be working, as more media agencies continue to win planning responsibilities that used to go to full-service shops.

Some observers downplay the effect of this revolution. "The majority of billings for these big [planning and buying] agencies were inherited from the media agencies' former parent companies," says Erwin Ephron, a partner with media consultancy Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, New York. "The original agencies are still calling the shots there."

But as the concept of communication architecture gels, more media agencies are boasting new account wins based on their status as architects, and some clients are validating those claims.

"We work with a variety of creative shops, but we look first to MediaCom to help us decide which form of media to use to find consumers in a media landscape that changes every single day," says Peter Isaia, director of media and sponsorship for Diageo. The company consolidated its $150 million in media planning and buying for wine, beer and spirits brands with Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York, last September. Previously, media planning and buying was scattered among a set of media shops.


Mr. Isaia says since working with MediaCom, "we've revamped the creative on campaigns to target audiences more precisely... our recent advertising for Smirnoff Ice shows its effects."

Despite their input into creative ideas, media shops are hard-pressed to point to efforts where their work is glaringly obvious.

Dene Callas, MediaCom's co-managing director and chief strategic officer, admits that though there's occasionally "resistance" from creative shops when confronted with concepts from the media agency, ultimately "cooperation wins, to get the best outcome."

Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York, was a pure media buying operation before it assumed the mantle of a communication architecture operation, but it too has designs on influencing ad creative like its competitors without actually offering creative services.

"When full-service agencies dominated the process, creative [departments] were in the driver's seat and clients were more likely to get steered toward predetermined solutions, without doing a full audit of what was the best way to reach the consumer," says Charlie Rutman, Carat's president. "Only when you separate the creative from the media planning and buying do you get true media neutrality, and the opportunity to find the best solution."

Carat advises clients such as Pfizer on how to use the creative, and sometimes provides direct creative input, says Mr. Rutman.

Executives at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann, New York, say a decline in profit margins for media buying over the last several years played a big role in forging the communication architecture concept.

"The advantage is no longer about [media buying] clout, but it's about having the smartest people and the best insights working on media, and showing the client measurable results," says Marston Allen, chief of Universal McCann's Communication Architecture area. It was Universal McCann's planning expertise, he says, that allowed the agency to win Maytag Corp.'s $100 million media account last month.


Most media shops say they're compensated now with fees based on manpower and time spent, much like professional services, which enhances a genuine atmosphere of pushing the best possible solution, not the most profitable media channel.

"We're compensated now for making different media channels work together, which is completely new," says Steve Lanzano, CEO of WPP's Mediaedge:CIA, New York. Through communication architecture, his agency uses research and consumer feedback to help "tweak" the creative elements of ad campaigns, including the timing of discounts and promotions for Yum Brands' Pizza Hut.

Bcom3 Group's Starcom MediaVest, Chicago, goes so far as to "lead the creative discovery process" on many accounts, says Jack Klues, Starcom's CEO, as media planning moves to the forefront of shaping a campaign.

"The key is being flexible, and the ability to listen and adapt," says Mr. Klues.

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