Media’s New Primacy

A funny thing happened on the way to creating the interactive advertising industry: Media people became the decision makers.

Somehow, in the fracas of trying to figure out what everyone was doing, the creative people and the account people ceded control to the marketing process. And not just the media directors, either — the biggest decisions made in the past four years among the most influential agencies in interactive have been made by media supervisors and planners.

This process can partly be attributed to the idiosyncrasies of the creative and account people themselves. Creatives have been turned off by the lack of richness of interactive media. They wanted TV-quality production values, and, instead, they got the equivalent of matchbook covers. The account people couldn’t figure out why the media folks wanted to divert TV money — on which agencies made a very predictable margin — and shunt that over to this interactive stuff where they lost money hand over fist. On top of that, trying this new stuff made them feel very insecure. Account people can’t position themselves as experts when they work in a medium that’s so immature.

Here’s a funny truism about creative and account people: We (I’m one) don’t care so much about great marketing as much as we care about putting out great ads. And the ads in one medium appear a whole lot better — in terms of the status conferred upon the agency staff responsible — than the ads in other media.

A Hierarchy of Media

It’s generally accepted among agency people, especially creatives, that there exists a hierarchy of media. And as they advance through their careers, these folks climb the ladder of promotions to outdoor on their way to print, which precedes radio and, eventually, the vaunted television. This becomes a self-fulfilling culture. The best creatives always want to do what they think is most respected. And most could care less about interactive stuff.

The media people turned out to be different. When interactive media rolled around, the culture of media departments was one of rigid boundaries. Most agencies had a set process, and deviating from this process earned you the ire of the media director. There wasn’t a lot of room for creativity in the normal course of the day, which led to a funny trait in media people. Like computer-programming engineers, they developed a talent and respect for “tricking” this system. If you could figure out a slightly more efficient manner of buying, or a way to exploit slightly better rates, you could be seen as a hero. So when interactive media arrived, the media people took to it like ducks to water.

Back in 1995, clients would dedicate a small amount of money to the interactive budget, and the creative people would look at it as though a dog had made a mess in the living room. It was the media people who would jump on it like flies. And this set up a precedent that we’d never quite shake: The media people would define the type of media bought — whether it be banners, interstitials, sound files, online promotions, etc. The creatives would have to fit their creative ideas into whatever format the media people determined. And the account people, far from controlling this marketing process, would be left to make sure the creatives actually got their work done in the right format and on time.

New Media Strategies

At first this control of the process was limited. Banner sizes and different technologies varied so much that creatives wouldn’t even agree to start work until everyone knew which sites were on the buy. But this order of battle caused media departments to develop high-level marketing strategies to figure out their buys in the first place.

Smart people who somehow found themselves working for an ad agency began to yearn to move over to the media side, particularly the interactive media side. This became a problem for agencies in the late ’90s because the “brain drain” was extreme. Interactive media groups grew so quickly that they had to steal staff from other departments, other agencies, and even other industries. A lot of new sales reps for sites were wooed back into the agencies at this time, and they even got pay raises in the process.

New Media Culture

While running an interactive shop out of San Francisco in 1997, I remember having difficulty when some of the young traditional media staff came to me to discuss “the stigma.” They were people who loved what they did, yet they felt somehow belittled by the process going on around them. Because of the strained labor markets, they were paid less even though they tended to be more senior.

But the thing that really stung was the fact that the young new media whippersnappers had an exploratory camaraderie, and they had been able to wrest control of the marketing process from the creative and account people. The traditional people wanted me to mandate a similar environment for them. I wish I could have. I had to explain to them that there are many things one can’t mandate, among them culture and vigor. Getting traditional media creatives and account people to let the media folks into the strategy process would require a cultural change that is most difficult. (I tried, like many before me.) It’s something that the media folks needed to take forcefully themselves.

A lot of ad agencies didn’t show the flexibility to allow for these natural changes. And at those agencies, you witnessed an exodus. The most talented — and thereby the most frustrated — people left in droves. Part of it was the fact that they could get paid a lot more at other agencies that did respect interactive work. But they also left because, naturally, they sought to be in work environments where they fit in.

The new agencies that concentrated on interactive media were often started by media folks. This was new. Yes, there were a couple of big firms that were started by creative folks, but the brunt of the new media divisions and completely new companies were founded by people who had media experience.

In 1994, when I was an account guy working on the Sony account at Leo Burnett, I had an intern from the client’s media group working for me. When I saw him next, a couple of years later, this same guy had started and was running i-traffic. And this was happening all over the industry.

As clients sunk money into the interactive trend, they didn’t tell their agencies, “Go spend this on newer and better creative mechanisms.” Rather, they told their agencies, “Go spend this money on more and better media vehicles.” The creative process went along for the ride, and, even now, as things have slowed down in the downturn, creative departments are still attempting to catch up.

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