What If Richard Branson Ran a Media Agency?

Change Is Hard but Necessary to Build the Media Agency of the Future

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The media agency network is a multi-billion dollar powerhouse. Controlled by a few power players, this oligarchy has traditionally set the stage for a publisher's success. Media agencies are part of the chosen few that work with a client "enterprise wide", and are rarely limited to working with a single brand. This privileged position provides media agencies with the opportunity to be a nucleus of change in the advertising business, if they are motivated. However, in the words of Darwin, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."

With so much money at play, and with the success of the world's largest companies and brands hinging on the impact of their marketing, the media business should be filled with many of the same analysts, deal makers, and technology gurus who manage the financial industry. Their wisdom should fill the pages of Techcrunch with a flurry of innovation, new technologies and new ideas. Few would question that change is needed, but how do you change when change is hard? With so much shareholder value, training, and client understanding vested in the model of yesterday, how do you create a model for tomorrow?

For the right answer, we need to look no further than Richard Branson, not because of his love for a good party, a fine beverage, or a saucy yacht, but rather his track record of building an empire by being a powerful disrupter, spanning industries from telecommunications to travel. If Richard were in charge, what would he do to change the face of the media agency business?

Marketers (the client) will need a new attitude
Step one would be retooling the relationships marketers have with their media agencies; what they pay for and how they measure value. This would not be easy. Marketers would need to force the discussion to focus on results not process, and challenge their agency partners to evolve to more effective and efficient means to buying media - holistically. Today's model, with its "top to top" engagements, scores of junior resources, and endless meetings, is stuck in the 90s. There is this thing called technology that might help, but this would require media agencies tore-evaluate their business model, hiring brains to drive innovation, leaving larger margins for R&D and compensation focused on results. Richard is driven by seeking an upside to play, status quo is not all that inspiring – real opportunity comes from changing the game.

Make data happen
Everyone is talking about "big data" changing the media business. However, the industry will need to align money and power to make this happen. Many large companies are still buying media by email or fax, and planning seven, eight and nine-figure media spends with Excel spreadsheets. It will take serious horsepower from multiple marketers, working together in applying pressure, to change the industry. Technology standards, including APIs for pricing, buying, and performance metrics, will need to be standardized across multiple media channels and enforced without exception. This will force marketers to walk away from many publishers and sponsorships that don't comply. It will change the business, accountability, and the sales model for the entire industry. Not an easy task but Richard doesn't take no for an answer. If you can build a spaceship – this looks easy.

Lead the paid-to-earned revolution
If there is one thing history has taught us, it's that change happens quickly only in a revolution. That time has come, now that 700+ million social media users vastly outnumber the "Mad Men" on Madison Avenue. People often ask, "What is the "key" to driving earned media for a brand?" In truth, there is no real secret, other than the need for a brand to build a great product and/or build really engaging content. Media agencies won't lead the charge in content development, but their expertise is called upon to get the message out, and increasingly, to measure earned media and its value to the enterprise. This can only happen if the media business shifts its core from a people business to a technology business. Richard would be willing to make the hard decisions and invest to make this happen. Leading a revolution is tough business. It takes a leader with the presence and power to hold the ship together as it changes course.

Acquire power
Re-invention almost never comes from within. You need to understand the inside, but the disruption, that leads to real change comes from the outside. Richard never goes into battle alone. He would build a team of successful technology entrepreneurs, empower them with a vision, expend hundreds of millions for acquisitions, and use his power to bring the world's biggest clients to the table. The result would be higher valuations for his shareholders as he enabled technology to drive a never seen before upside for his clients.

The idea of Sir Richard leading an industry transformation in media is unlikely. The business model shift will eventually happen, albeit at a more torpid pace, than if led by Branson. If marketers are lucky, a new "Richard" will emerge to lead the revolution but, until that happens, we'll continue to have the fun conferences in interesting locations where we can all talk about change and the big data that will power it all.

Michael Scissons is president-CEO of Syncapse, a full-service social-technology company that helps the world's largest advertisers build, manage and measure their connections with consumers in the digital landscape. Find him online at @scissons
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