"Ad Agents" is a column focused on the agency-side of the digital media community.
Matt Greitzer is the Co-Founder of Accordant Media, a media buying and optimization company.
"What do agencies do, anyway?" In my twelve years in the agency business I never heard this phrase posed to me directly (though I often felt it left unsaid). Three months out of my agency shoes, I’ve now heard untold themes and variations of this question, sometimes asked in earnest, sometimes in sheer exasperation, and sometimes in spite. Many in the tech-centric circles of Silicon Valley and New York deem the agency obsolete, a relic of a bygone era soon to be extinct, replaced by SaaS software and predictive models. This view is naive. As long as vendors seek to part advertisers from their dollars, there exists the need for a neutral party to filter and vet the crowded landscape of publishers, technology and marketing service providers. Beyond that, agencies provide the vital service of historical memory for large corporations. Client-side marketing managers may change roles every twelve to eighteen months. But senior agency leaders can spend a career focused on one client, and one client only. The institutional capital agencies provide to longstanding clients and their marketing teams is impossible to replicate. In their best incarnations, agency partners synthesize this deep understanding of clients’ business objectives with a broad view of the marketing vehicles available for achieving these objectives.
Synthesizing strategy and execution to achieve clients’ objectives is where agencies lend true value. So despite the doubters and detractors, the need for agency partners is not likely to falter. But while the need for agencies services remains, the role the agency plays in a digital marketing world is less certain. And the changing needs and expectations of this role are no better represented than in the role of Media Planner.
For a hundred years or more the media planning discipline has been preoccupied with the question of “where.” The role of the Media Planner was to seek out the most relevant opportunities to reach an advertiser’s target audience through paid media. And thus the skills, training and toolsets that drove media planning focused on finding and buying content that best attracted those audiences. When content was the only variable, this approach made sense. But in a marketing landscape increasingly dominated by technology and data, knowing where to run relevant advertising is no longer an adequate solution. Effective media planning needs to also address how to run relevant advertising, as in what technology and data strategy is required to deliver a relevant, targeted ad to the right audience with minimal waste. Yet Media Planners are woefully undertrained to deliver against this requirement.
It’s no wonder advertising technology vendors dread selling to agencies. Media Planners, the only true holders of agency purse strings, have neither the training nor the mandate to purchase ad technology solutions such as dynamic creative delivery, audience data warehouses, demand side platforms, business intelligence platforms, or any of the other powerful technical innovations that blossomed over the last five years. And this list doesn’t even entertain social media and the flurry of innovations filling that category. Not that Media Planners are uninterested in these innovations, they are, but their training and mandate remains squarely focused on the placement of media. The agency community has not yet accepted that the technical components that determine how media is placed are every bit as important – maybe more so – than where that media runs. Put another way, the diversity of skills and expertise required today to execute an effective digital media campaign are far too vast for the modern Media Planner to successfully navigate. Perhaps it’s time for the role of the media planner to evolve and embrace this reality.
The Modern Media Planning Org
A modern media planning organization might look something like this: At the helm, sits a Media Strategist. This person is a central client contact with a deep understanding of client objectives, and a broad understanding of digital media opportunities. The Media Strategist sets the high level strategy for achieving client objectives using all available message distribution opportunities (including content, technology, data, etc.). For example, the Media Strategist may determine that a client whose business is driven by repeat customers needs a central customer data management platform to supercharge their remarketing efforts -or, that another client, launching a new product to a niche market, is best served with custom sponsorships on niche content sites and word-of-mouth marketing on message boards and blogs.
The Media Strategist would call upon three distinct teams of specialists to execute their strategy: one team for integrated sponsorships, one for social media, and one for biddable, “algorithmic” media. The first would be dedicated to high-end, custom sponsorships and strategic partnerships with key publishers. The second, focused on using social media for customer acquisition, retention, and customer feedback. And the third focused on the integration of technology, data and expertise to drive efficiency, targeted reach and reach extension through automated, biddable media. Each of these teams would have deep category expertise in their field, and would be called upon to greater or lesser extent depending on their relevance for a given client’s needs. The role of the Media Strategist as orchestrator of these three disciplines would be central to any digital marketing agency and core to their business. While the three tactical arms of integrated sponsorships, social media and algorithmic media could either be built and maintained in-house, or outsourced to specialists. Large agencies would likely build these tactical arms in-house, while small and mid-sized agencies would choose to outsource and focus on building their core strategic expertise.
A media organization built in this manner reconciles the need for high-level strategic coordination of digital marketing efforts with the requirement of deep tactical expertise in disparate areas of online marketing. And not that it’s incumbent on agencies to address skeptical vendors, but this type of organization also clearly answers the question, “what do agencies do?” In this new model they provide high-level digital marketing strategy and guidance, and marshal the appropriate tactical resources to achieve their objectives. A clear delineation between strategic guidance and tactical expertise should allow agencies to deliver each more effectively. Moreover, a realignment of media planning roles and responsibilities updates a century old organizational model developed for an analogue media landscape and makes it relevant for a digital marketing world.
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