Media’s New Primacy: The Argument for a Career in Media

I don’t know why people just don’t come out and admit it, but media has been the redheaded stepchild of advertising agencies ever since it became its own discipline. So it’s all the more notable that media departments in ad agencies have become — just in the last couple of years — the darlings of the client. It’s now the media department that wins or loses clients, just as much as — if not more than — the creative department.

When a big Chicago agency first hired me out of college, it had me slated as an account guy, like it did everyone from my eastern school. I’d have to slog through a year or two of media, but I was marked as someone who would move on to bigger and better things once I’d passed this “training.” I’d even get paid about 10 percent more than the people who were doomed to stay forever on the ninth floor in media and who, at the time, were doing the same work that I was doing.

They hired those media folks out of the state schools in the Midwest. I can tell you from personal experience that there are plenty of complete idiots graduating from Ivy League schools and that there are many utterly brilliant people coming out of state schools. But the firm liked things simple. You were either category A or category B, and those in category B were relegated to media.

In some ways, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. By treating the media folks like second-class employees, the firm made the media job much less attractive. So the smart people in the department left — either for other firms or, more often, for media sales jobs where they’d double their pay. As a result, the remaining people took on the pallor of the “Land of the Misfit Agency People.”

Ad agency boards of directors seldom let more than one or two media people on. I know at this firm, at the time, there was only one media person. Media folks were given the smallest offices on the lowest floors in the building. I can remember visiting a big firm in Portland, OR, a few years back for a meeting we had with a common client. The firm’s offices were a central part of that city’s downtown restoration — a building about which the whole town bragged.

So I was surprised to be led through a series of unfinished catwalks and basement passageways to a small, cramped, hot, and noisy little office where the firm housed the media department. The symbolism was unavoidable: It was as though the creatives feared the media people would pollute their work if they were kept too close.

People reading this column who work in large traditional agencies know what I’m talking about. Even with all the denials from management, it’s an attitude that remains difficult to hide. You can sense the air of superiority from other groups in many subtle ways — the way you’re sometimes invited out to lunch; the way your offices always happen to face the alley; the way your group is asked to just “add on” a media plan to existing new-business pitches. You are not asked to help with the core client strategies.

To explain all this, we have to remember how departments started out. People who worked in the industry back then are now dead, but you can get a caricature of the old “ad executive” by watching daytime syndicated TV. If you remember Darren from “Bewitched,” you might remember that his job involved media deals, writing ad copy, and taking clients out to dinner. This ad “Renaissance man” (and, yes, ad execs were mostly men) was the norm — media, creative, and account management all rolled into one person. In the middle part of this last century, agencies began to create specialized departments. One of the first was the media group, siphoning off some of the least-liked work for the people who ran the firm.

Importantly, the firms’ founders saw themselves as fitting into the creative or account departments — not media. People starting up new firms in the ’60s through the ’90s were almost all creative or account people. They always figured they could hire someone to do the media. The very topmost media people still weren’t equity owners.

And then interactive media happened, and everything got turned on its head.

Next week, part two of this series will explore how interactive media has elevated media to the key department in this new evolution of marketing.

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