Commentary by Jonah Bloom

High and Dry on a Beach of Ad Clutter

Media Planners, Strategists Are Still Undervalued

By Published on .

Lying on the beach at the weekend, pondering nothing but the merits of Coke vs. Corona (their potential impact on my hangover rather than their marketing strategies), I was reminded
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.
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of my day job by a plane buzzing overhead pulling a banner advertising Venus, Gillette's curvy ladies' razor.

Given that half an hour earlier the woman next to me had bemoaned her failure to shave her legs, it seemed like a smart media buy. But as the banner was followed successively by similar aerial stunts for other companies, such as Delta's Song and Yahoo!, my interest in the planes started to flag. So how long does a consumer have to lie on the beach before their prompted recall rates for fly-by banners drop off?

Cutting through the clutter
Idle recollections of a long weekend in the sun? Perhaps. But there is a point here, too. Namely, that it's never been so difficult to come up with media-planning ideas that cut through the clutter.

The explanations are hackneyed. Media proliferation reduces the cost-effectiveness of most traditional media buys; clutter renders consumers oblivious to many messages (a recent study suggested the average consumer is hit by 2,500 commercial imprints a day); briefer consumer attention spans and increased cynicism make it harder than ever to connect with the public.

It's not about creative
Everyone's heard them before. But what are marketers and their agencies really doing to tackle the issue? "Err, we need better creative product," is the answer that comes back most often. Err, yes, that's true. But better ads, alone, will not cut, or sell, the mustard.

What's needed is inspired, cut-through media strategy. Yet there is little real investment in or recognition of the role of the media strategist.

Having, to a large extent, inherited their business models from the ad agencies from which they were unbundled, most media agencies are still built around a model based on the margin they can make on media placements -- rather than the value of their insights into reaching the consumer.

While most of the major U.S. media agencies have hired a handful of people dedicated to devising original strategies, the vast majority of their staff -- the industry folk most likely to have media-channel expertise -- are employed in the business of placement, not strategy. In turn, the creative agencies that spun off those media businesses have lost access to a deeper understanding of consumers and how to connect with them.

'Placement negotiators'
What's more, despite broad agreement that the medium is now as important as the message, it seems much of the industry still regards media agency executives as placement negotiators, not creative thinkers. There is a seemingly endless supply of awards for ad campaigns, but none give much weight to great and original media thinking. The only major U.S. media awards that come to mind are still organized by budget level and advertising channel, which, as Martin Albrecht of Crossmedia puts it, "cements the status of media as executional rather than as a differentiator in communications."

Some of the best work (Crispin Porter & Bogusky's campaign for Mini, or the Media Kitchen's work for the Sci-Fi Channel series Taken) is distinguished by its inspired use of media, and by being based on an idea that generates the same emotion wherever the consumer connects with it. But the awards shows tend to focus -- the success of the above campaigns aside -- on the idea that creativity is encapsulated by one ad, whether a TV spot or a print execution.

Those who think that is enough are going to find it increasingly hard to get the eyes, ears or wallets of the average consumer.

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