Acquiring Media Planning Business in a ‘New Normal’ Age

In these economic times, what does the client really want? We get that they want to pay less and get more, but do they want this at the expense of expertise or integrity? Do they understand the scope of work involved in planning and managing digital campaigns, and that the pressure to reduce fees can result in “an inability to sustain profitable margins on digital media management service,” as cautioned by Jason Burnham of Burnham Marketing? Or are they just tired of “$490/hour blended rates charged by umbrella holding companies where 23-year-olds with one year of business experience are managing their budgets and making buy recommendations based on what rep bought them sunglasses or designer jeans last week,” as Andrea Giancontieri of White Label Digital Solutions bluntly put it?

Have you heard the phrase the “new normal”? As a business owner, it seems to come up quite frequently by experts trying to help us through today’s tough times. Though different individuals have been credited with coining the phrase and applying it to their industries, its meaning has now taken on a broader context: the recessionary times combined with Internet-bred disintermediation, a globalized economy, and an ever-more competitive marketplace forces those seeking to survive the new normal to have “fresh thinking, smart adaptation, and a focus on relentless execution and solid performance.”

Recent situations in my own business have gotten me thinking about a shift to new normal practices when it comes to what it now takes to woo and acquire new online media planning business. “Standard practices” seem to be out the window, and what is now expected by companies hiring agencies like mine has me troubled. Those of us who specialize in digital used to be unique; now any company from a Madison Avenue ad agency to a one-man web design shop claims to offer online media services, and the result not only confuses the buyer but has lent itself to a commoditization of the very expertise that digital requires.

To the less educated buyer, “digital media” might mean all or any tactics in the digital space – advertising, search, social, web events, lead gen, mobile, etc. – that seem to make sense to their business. Don’t do some of those things? Oh well, you’re not qualified to do our digital media planning. Do them? Great, tell us your strategy for our digital marketing mix…but before we give you our business. Sharing your strategy? Wonderful, and now let’s compare it with and against five other agencies and get back to you. Or it’s, we want top-line ideas but your strategy failed to have enough granular details; we want details but you didn’t give us enough over-arching strategy. Just trying to discern the real criteria a company uses to select a shop and being able to accommodate each varying circumstance has become an exercise in mind-reading and mental yoga.

What bothers me most and seems to be compromised in this age of new normal is the general lack of understanding that good online media planning requires true experience and intellectual property. Anyone can place an ad network buy – heck, just go to Google – but that is not the same as producing a solid, strategic media plan. So why should an agency be expected to give you that upfront in order to get your business? Clients expect it because there are those in our business who are giving it away. Those who have people on the bench with nothing better to do. Those who view winning new business in this age as gambling with even higher stakes and those stakes involve either giving it away upfront (IP) or on the back-end (lowball pricing). Neither scenario helps any of us in the end because it just devalues what we do.

But is this work to win business really the agency’s best work? Is it backed by a real discovery process? Is there a fair exchange of knowledge and collaboration between the client and their agency partner, or is it just a race to the finish? And what happens when the business is won based on this kind of strategy or plan? What kind of expectation will the client have for you to then act upon and hold you to this plan once they’ve hired you to execute it when their post-hire revelations expose its weaknesses? Who’s at fault then?

None of this, of course, examines if the selected agency is actually a good cultural fit and partner for the client. This relationship has often been described as a marriage, but think how many quickie Las Vegas-style weddings last when the spouses really don’t know one another and are instead jaded by each other’s facades. Are the agency-client marriages made in today’s new normal going to go the distance or crash and burn for all the wrong reasons?

I think it’s time for those of us with leadership roles in this industry to challenge our peers and our prospects, or else there are going to be a lot more early “divorces” in the years that follow.

Related reading