Futureproofing Media Client-Agency Partnerships

By Robert Rakowitz, Global Media Director, Mars Inc.

The other day, I was invited onto a panel at the 4As Decisions 2020 to discuss “How Collaboration Gets Results.” Along with other colleagues, I was asked to present a client view on how media is evolving on the advertiser-side and what this means for media agencies.

From a context perspective, client-agency relationships are entering a new cycle with many players on both sides misreading needs, tensions, and responsibilities. This was poignant given some of the speakers’ presentations and also that FBI was subpoenaing a handful of marketers for all communication between them and their media agency. Having been in agencies (research, creative, and media) for a long time and having worked with many clients, and now being the client-side media leader at Mars, I had a unique opportunity to set out what I saw as the fundamental issues we are facing as a marketing practice. Without a doubt we are at an inflection point, and many organizations will be rewriting their media operations to address two fundamental opportunities:

Media’s full potential will only be unlocked if it is relevant and connected. Media as practiced today touches so many areas of the business than it has previously – finance, marketing, sales, technology, ecommerce, corporate affairs. This manifests itself in terms of everything from budgeting to brand safety. Media leaders and their teams are acting as the tip of the spear as it comes to marketing change and are now driving connection and transformation in other areas of the business. The need is for client side media leaders to be connector-builders; connecting media to new areas of the business, and building new capabilities, coalitions, and collaborations to span media reach and sales conversion. The entire reason DTC or Digital Native Vertical Brands are the apple of the marketer’s eye now is because they are blending technology, data, media, advertising and creating real value for consumers in exchange for data.

Media’s value will only be secured when leaders take the sustainability agenda into the media ecosystem. Lots of corporations are talking about sustainable business practices – livable wage, lower carbon footprint, better packaging, etc. But what about communications and advertising? The issues we have around nontransparent business practices (rebates), digital ad fraud and brand safety represent the same risk to the media ecosystem as ocean plastic does to the environment. Good media leaders and their CMOs need to take this into account and drive for sustainable, transparent, and mutual business practices – starting with the agency – to avoid a ‘cost-first, ethics later’ orientation that would force agencies to find margin points elsewhere. As the saying goes, the fish stinks from the head.

Ultimately, CMOs and media leaders are choosing to craft a renewed media operating system at the moment – all with the goal of making sure it is:

  • OWNABLE in that it is strategically connected and relevant to the business model
  • AGILE in that it moves at the speed of data across investment, activation, and attribution
  • FUTURE-PROOFED in that it incorporates more capabilities but with less headcount

In doing so, this new Media OS drives what I call “Change Cubed

  1. Change at the organization level (new connections)
  2. Change at the capability level (new practice)
  3. Change at the campaign level (new creativity)

So, what does this mean for clients and agency partnerships?

Renewed partnership will require a refreshed ownership mentality. Agency leaders will need to be even more open and aware of the changes that are underfoot, and work in an even more consultative way through the change will lead to better partnership. The Media OS will continue to span client and agency organizations but shaping will be dependent on the ownership level. Silos and legacy operations within client organizations and agencies will need to be interrogated.

Partnership will require even more understanding to preserve indispensability. While CMOs and media leaders will be closer and connected to the business, agency leaders and teams will be closer to technology and media owners. The partnership is just as essential, but it will need to flex to the current cycle, trends, and needs. Moore’s Law is in full effect here – not all change will be the same nor will it be even. Every client will have their own business model and their own needs for ownership (strategic and operational) and their own capability hurdles. So one size will never fit all. A direct acquisition marketer’s ownership needs and their operating model and agency resourcing will look wildly different than an indirect seller.

Partnership will require more fluidity and agility. Marketing team resourcing will ultimately flex based on business model and campaign evolution. What we should expect to see more of in an age of intelligence is fewer, more empowered people making better informed decisions around media portfolios, audiences, content, placement, and optimization. Talent on the agency side will need to embrace the alchemy of this all, being able to be play equal parts strategist, technologist, provocateur and diplomat.

The mandate for media is clear – more ownership that spans organizations, more frontline mentality, more conscientiousness in setting up business terms for sustainability.

The media client-agency partnership is like a bonsai tree; it needs to be properly rooted, given the right soil, enough light and water, and it requires active shaping to ensure that it thrives.

Originally published on LinkedIn, March 27, 2019.