This week sees the first Venice Media Festival and global media agency chiefs will show how they’re facing the brave new world of communications and clients will be saying what they want from their agencies and, doubtless, asking why aren’t they getting it?
Executives won’t be going there just because it’s a glamorous venue: from all sides executives are wrestling with some fundamental issues. Clients and agencies are asking "How will we need to communicate with our market in future?" and "How do we need to organise ourselves to handle it?", whereas the media is asking "How do we hang on to our audience and maintain our profits?"
Let’s start with consumers. They’ve never been faced with so much choice, particularly in the area of communications. They are spending a huge, growing amount on communications, computer games, pay-TV, and iPod. Every month hundreds of millions of pounds are moving out of other product and service sectors to pay for it.
This money is not going into conventional media that welcome paid-for advertising and we shouldn’t expect that situation to change. When a group of teenagers were asked which they would least like to give up/ their TV, their PC or mobile – the mobile came romping home.
Nearly all of these developments involve a different frame of mind: "online communities" means helping, listening, collaborating and working in partnership. A significant minority of clients, agencies and media now get this, but understanding the concept is one thing, changing structures and ways of working is quite another.
It is old news that consumers can avoid or screen out your message, but what has changed is that many now expect to create their own messages and media. and they’re created entirely collaboratively, as with Wikipedia. As Charles Leadbetter says: "It’s the era of ‘we-media’." The other side of "collaboration" is if this community decides they don’t like your product or company, they can destroy your reputation in a matter of days. Word of mouth is now the most powerful medium. This does not mean that conventional media are dead, but overall they are diminished.
This brings huge challenges to all sides of our industry. For clients, those harassed and under-staffed marketing departments have to either ignore all these opportunities or appoint a further raft of specialist agencies to advise them. Who has sufficient knowledge, time and objectivity to pull it all together properly? The implications of "we-media"; the digital revolution; "community"; and transparency run through every function of a company and its board.
Marketing directors could play a huge role in it (advising and co-ordinating, but not "directing"), but do they have the clout any longer, particularly as they typically stay in their jobs for less than two years?For agencies, messages need to be particularly compelling and often not presented as a "message" at all, but as "content". So addiction to producing 30-second commercials is very dangerous. However, all good agencies contain highly innovative people and if they are committed to "the big idea" rather than "the TV idea" then they’re on the right track. The trouble is that this idea needs to work in a whole host of channel formats – adapted, sliced and diced in a variety of ways.
And the opportunities are changing all the time – it sounds like this open-minded creative guy needs to work closely with really on-the-ball media/communications strategists.
But the majority of creative people have never been more separate from their media practitioners, even though most of them are in common ownership.
Hence the debate about "the return of the full-service agency", but the idea of creative and media agency monoliths mating together is difficult to imagine. There is no question that media and creative must now be close together, but it’s easier to see that working with new agencies, without baggage. For the others, "full service" needs to be a matter of attitude and not location – back to that word "collaboration".
Media agencies have a different set of issues, coming from a reactionary culture that bought only what was tried and tested, they are expected to take a raft of bets on which of all these new channels are going to work and then choose the right means of using them.
Many clients are pushing their media agencies to be creative and fearless, yet the agencies I meet are forced to spend more and more of their time with procurement departments and auditors. A bit of a contradiction there.
Finally, the classic media is having to manage decline of its core product, be it a newspaper or a terrestrial TV channel. At the same time they are seeking to create formats from them that can be migrated to other channels in the newer media. A growing minority of media owners are learning the new skills associated with this – their challenge is not so much one of loss of audience, as loss of ad revenue because they can’t charge as much for the same audience when it’s delivered digitally. We are going to see a lot more conferences, but a working model for "the big agency of the future" remains some way off yet.
Chris Ingram is founding partner of Ingram