Want to plan campaigns? Best get your ‘I’s crossed

Although media agencies are rushing to take on extra planning responsibility, there are doubts over whether staff have sufficient experience, says Angus Bannerman

Of late, advertisers have increasingly been handing over the responsibility for allocating their communication channel budget to their media agency. A media agency might, for instance, have to decide how much of its client’s budget is focused on PR, rather than a TV campaign.

This makes sense – those with the deepest understanding of the most expensive element of marketing should be recognised as integral to the overall communications decision-making process. The decline of the full-service agency, and the subsequent dissolution of creative agencies’ hegemony is testament to that realisation.

However, the speed with which media agencies (and clients) have embraced communications planning has caused concern. For it to really work, communications planners need to be “T-shaped” people. This term, coined by Dave Roberts of IBM in 2001, refers to “…a breadth of knowledge, and a depth of understanding”. “T-shaped” communications planners, with a background in media, have a deep understanding of media, and a broad understanding of the other disciplines within the marketing spectrum. They might not have a deep understanding of the minutiae of direct marketing, but they would broadly understand the repercussions of its inclusion in a through-the-line campaign.

To continue the alphabetical analogy, if the ideal communications planner is “T-shaped”, then a classic media agency employee is “I-shaped” – with a deep understanding of their discipline, but not necessarily of any other – and a classic client-side employee “hyphen-shaped”, their role requiring a broad understanding of many disciplines rather than specific knowledge of one. The worry is that media agencies are trying to do a “T” job with “I” people.

The media agency sector seems to have always had a chip on its shoulder about its position within the wider marketing industry. A discipline that has defined itself by splitting away from another will naturally strive to prove itself, delivering above and beyond its remit; and media agencies seem keen to continually reposition and revalidate themselves in the context of the other disciplines with which they find themselves jostling for attention. The glimpse of a seat at the top table that communications planning offers has caused many to rush headlong into commitments without considering how they will be fulfilled.

In practice, communications planning through the media agency actually makes sense; who knows better the contours of the media landscape? There are reasons why media agencies are best placed to offer communications planning, and reasons why clients are not as suited to channel plan objectively as they might themselves think. However, the “eager to please” attitude that some media agencies take has led certain companies to embrace tasks which they might not be able to complete properly. Any agency is judged on delivery – or lack thereof – and promising the undeliverable is a sure-fire route to ruin.

Angus Bannerman is a senior planner and buyer at BJK&E Media