Planning communications from a neutral perspective is nothing new. Traditional media agencies have been claiming to offer media-neutral advice for years, with PHD securing a strong reputation for its planning. Shops such as Unity, and Michaelides & Bednash have also set out their stall on giving strategic communications advice from a position of neutrality.
But the arrival on the scene of Naked – founded by ex-PHD managers Will Collin and Jon Wilkins, as well as John Harlow, who ran Rocket and PHD’s strategic planning arm – appears to have shaken up the industry.
Since its formation in 2000, Naked has picked up strategic communications briefs from Hutchison to work on its third generation network “3”, Sony PlayStation, as well as the ill-fated ITV Digital. The past week alone has seen the agency win the media planning strategy for Honda, the global launch of Siemens new range of mobile phone hardware, and Campbell Grocery Products (MW last week), which follows on from its work on Batchelors’ Supernoodles.
The agency claims to offer business solutions and independent communications planning across a whole spectrum of media, including public relations (PR), media stunts, point of purchase (PoP) and traditional advertising.
Some industry insiders claim the agency’s success is partly because of its cultivation of close ties with creative agencies, including Mother, a senior management member of which has invested in Naked. But Harlow claims that the team at Naked had links with Campbell, Costa Coffee and ITV Digital before the creative agency secured them as clients.
AAR director of advertising and media services Paul Phillips says: “The trick it [Naked] has managed is to persuade clients that separating planning and buying is a good idea.”
Harlow admits that the task is becoming “an increasingly easy and obvious thing to do. Because we don’t make ads or implement plans by buying media, we don’t force clients into any one solution.”
Andy Tilley, founding partner of Unity, which has worked on the Star Wars films and with The Carphone Warehouse, also believes that it is in the interest of creative agencies to recommend television ads. Additionally, he believes that media agencies tied into media buying deals should recommend traditional media, rather than PR, because they have no role in implementing it. He adds: “We assess whether or not there is a business problem and see if there is a role for communications.”
Campbell’s interim marketing director Rob Rees warns that there is danger in the way that the industry is geared towards traditional advertising over other forms of communication. “Advertising agencies are predicated on making TV ads and media agencies are predicated on moving a large amo
unt of volume,” he says.
He adds that Campbell’s brands required a more radical approach that went beyond TV, because “many of our business objectives do not require branding awareness,” and that Naked’s appointment “made up for the fact that there are not a lot of strong integrated agencies out there”.
Not all clients subscribe to this view however. There are still some clients that continue to use their creative agency for planning. Woolworths and Superdrug have only recently moved their planning away from Bates to their buying agencies. Other clients see the need for separate strategic advice and use an agency to handle it independently.
PHD handles strategy for BT. Its managing director Morag Blazey believes that media agencies are well placed to pick up strategic planning briefs because they have raised their game, while creative agencies have become weaker in this area.
And even where media agencies handle buying as well as strategic planning, she claims they offer “independent advice,” as “it is not in our interests to do otherwise”.
Masterfoods also uses a separate media agency in the UK to handle strategy. It even extended its brief in May – appointing MediaCom to handle its entire integrated communications strategy, which includes PR, PoP, direct marketing, sales and promotions, as well as radio, TV and posters.
MediaCom is not alone in offering clients a full strategic service. Carat was appointed by British Gas and is planning communications using the clients database information.
Carat marketing director Jenny Biggam claims that by not being affiliated to a creative agency, Carat is genuinely media neutral. She adds: “Most clients have moved towards payment by time rather than commission, which encourages you to be media and budget neutral.”
Gillette European media director Michael Winkler believes that the top media agencies tend to be good at planning and buying and that it is easier – from an operational perspective – to have the same agency handling both.
Another client adds: “Agencies that handle both media planning and buying know it is their lifeblood and I would expect them to come up with a media-neutral strategy, as long as the incentives, in terms of payment, are right.”
Consolidation over the past few years has meant that top media agencies are finding it harder to compete on price, so they have had to improve their planning and strategic skills to set themselves apart. The trend is set to continue as the large marketing groups merge their media networks or create bulk-buying centres: such as Interpublic’s Magna, which handles negotiations for Universal McCann and Initiative Media, and WPP Group’s decision to do the same for MindShare and Mediaedge:CIA.
But there are those who subscribe to the view that some planners may want to escape the formulaic grind of a big media network and follow in the footsteps of Naked’s founders by creating their own communications agencies. Only then will it become clear whether there is enough demand for Naked’s “media neutral” proposition and more agencies of this type.