Need a Way to Waste Time (and Breath)? Argue for Rebundling

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For an exercise in futility it is hard to beat the argument that ad and media agencies should be rebundled. It was a pointless, if forgivable, polemic when it was first rehearsed in Europe in the late '90s and with every rehashing it gets just a little more painful. Today its proponents are not only wasting their time engaging in a nostalgic nondebate, but missing the opportunity to make collaborative progress instead of, Canute-like, ordering back a tide that has already swept past them.

Perhaps it was inevitable, in the run-up to this month's 4A's media conference, that a couple of the ad-agency folk who yearn for a time when they held strategic sway over clients' budgets would yet again proclaim the need to reclaim the media high ground. Yet the terms they used, "bringing it back in-house," for example, sounded a lot like they were laboring under the illusion that the entire marketing world still revolves around their shops -- "we are the house, these others houses aren't houses" -- and, in tone, it sounded a lot like whining rather than the spawning of new models that suit their clients.

So, hopefully for the last time, let's get this straight: Media agencies are not going to be integrated into ad agencies. Have you been to Mediavest, Starcom, MindShare or OMD? Can you imagine squeezing them into the ad agencies? The bureaucracy, the politics, the confusion, the office-supply orders ...

The big media agencies are gigantic, busy-to-bursting businesses that plan and buy, between them, more than $50 billion in media in America alone. And, according to my admittedly half-assed, back-of-a-business-card calculations, they make over $4 billion in global revenue for their holding companies. You'd have to be crazy to imagine that Messrs. Wren, Sorrell, Roth and Levy are about to put that at risk by reintegrating those units.

What's more, while it is critical that media and message are intrinsically linked in the planning of a campaign, it is questionable whether it benefits the client to have the organization that does its communications planning be the same organization that has, historically at least, produced one particular type of communication. That's hardly the way to get broader, media-neutral thinking.

Then there's the fact that the separation of the media agencies has enabled them to equip themselves better for an era in which the navigation of channels between marketer and consumer is arguably the trickiest task in marketing. Today's media shops have research arms, planning tools and processes that are way more advanced than anything the old in-house departments had to offer. And the truth is that they still need more data-analytics talent and deeper planning resources to take the reams of research and turn it into meaningful insight for their clients. To take away their P&Ls and return them to ad agencies where they might, in some quarters, still be regarded as second-class citizens, would be seriously short-changing them -- and their clients.

Rather than looking backward, wishing for the impossible and generally sounding regressive, these ad-agency bosses ought to be helping to create new, flexible and collaborative models to serve the client that make the best use of a variety of resources regardless of the name over the door. Some smart marketers have already demanded such arrangements -- think Coca-Cola City or SMG United for P&G -- and no two will look the same. What they will have in common, however, is that they'll find ways to unite channel or engagement planners with brand planners and message masters without insisting that they all share a stapler.

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