Why do media agencies suck at branding themselves?

Media agency bosses, who tend to be down to earth than their creative agency peers, are usually the first to admit that media agencies are pretty ordinary at building their own brands.

Telling the world who they are, why they’re different and what they actually do is probably the thing media agencies do worst. Which is bizarre considering this is what they are paid to do by their clients.

To the outsider, and a fair few industry folk too, media agencies are all the same. They buy advertising space. They’re media supermarkets. Number bods doing a job a computer can now do.

Your average man on the street would probably have no idea what a media agency is for, and I’ve heard friends of people who work in media agencies admit they don’t really know either, even after being told repeatedly in ways that make the business sound more exciting than perhaps it is.

I’m always getting media agencies mixed up. Other trade hacks admit they do too. Even their own clients get them confused. A marketer I met not long ago stumbled through a list of three agencies beginning with the letter M before he remembered which one he actually uses.

On their websites, it’s usually so difficult to find out what it is they do, that you begin to suspect they are not willing to tell you, or are not entirely sure themselves.

First, there’s the acronym thing. OMD. PHD. UM. MEC. OMG. SMV. ZOG. If the Omnicom Publicis merger goes ahead, we’ll have POG, and with the rebranding of GroupM’s digital offering Outrider, just M. OMG, indeed.

Then there are the questionable slogans. Starcom is ‘the human experience company’. Um, sounds suspiciously like a travel agent.

Proudly purple

Proudly purple

And the nicknames they give themselves. Mindshare are the ‘proud purple people’. But so are those little chaps in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

And the language they use. “Our DNA is unique,” claims Starcom on its website. “Our people are transformational, dynamic, relentless, fearless, tribal, streetwise, switched on, human.” Great, but what do they actually do?

And the grandiose statements. “It’s time for someone to take full responsibility for their clients’ total business outcome… We are that someone”, proclaims Mediabrands.

Starcom: trippy

Starcom: trippy

And the constant tinkering with logos. MEC’s now tilts on its side. OMD’s is the first media agency logo to actually move. Starcom’s looks it was conceived by a priest on acid.

It doesn’t help that most of them no longer like to use the word ‘media’. Initiative is not a media agency, according to the ‘about us’ page on its website. It’s a ‘global communications network’.

But so is Vodafone.

Picture 11Then there’s the confusion created by standing for one thing in one market and something completely different in another. Zenith Optimedia is ‘The open agency’ in Australia, but it also ‘the ROI agency’ everywhere else. MediaCom is ‘The real time’ agency in Australia and ‘People first, better results’ elsewhere.

What is it about Australians and wanting to be different?

To be fair to Zenith, its brand in Australia was completely off the radar when the current CEO, former Naked executive Ian Perrin, took over in late 2011. Something had to be done to raise Zenith’s profile in a homogenous sector.

But the rebrand didn’t go down too well with the industry. Some said Perrin’s former boss Mike Wilson (who recently left Naked – probably the only media agency with a really strong brand, although it isn’t really a media agency, because it doesn’t buy media) was being too kind when he called Zenith’s new positioning “vague”.

“It’s very difficult for an agency to have two positionings and marry them together. It’s confusing for the market. ‘The ROI agency’ is narrow and deep, whereas ‘The open agency’ is just too broad,” he said.

It’s difficult enough to have a single, sensible positioning, when the quality of what you do varies depending on which market you’re in. Initiative cannot credibly claim to be APAC’s top media network. But it is a powerhouse in Thailand, one of the few markets where it is bigger than IPG Mediabrands sibling UM (formerly known as Universal McCann, in case you missed the rebrand).

The woman who runs IPG Mediabrands Thailand, Wannee Ruttanaphon, is symptomatic of another problem. In the local context, a media agency brand is defined by the person who runs it, not by what the company stands for. If Ruttanaphon leaves Mediabrands, chances are many of its clients would follow her.

Media is a people business above anything else. Culture is critical to hang on to your best people (the best media agencies always do well in surveys of the best companies to work for). If they leave, there isn’t much you’re left with besides a dodgy logo and a spurious mission statement.

A painful thing about media agency branding is the desire to be edgy – to appear as ‘creative’ as creative agencies.

Media is massive

Media is wicked, yeah?

In Australia, it’s hard to find a media agency that hasn’t covered its walls with graffiti. Harold Mitchell, the outspoken former boss of Aegis Media Pacific, saw to it that the agency’s carpark was covered in street art. All three floors of it.

In Singapore a few months ago, we saw UM attempt to make itself look fun with its sponsorship of the Digital & Music Matters conference. The agency changed the job titles of some of its staff to ‘Happiness Mayors’ for the day, and put on comedy wigs and sunglasses to show how at UM they ‘take fun seriously’.

And who could forget MEC Australia’s Harlem Shake video featuring dancing staff and agency boss Peter Vogle with a shiny dance baton?

So why do media agencies suck at branding themselves?

UM Singapore taking fun seriously

UM Singapore taking fun seriously

The head of a media agency in Hong Kong told me recently that media agencies are too proud to admit they have a brand problem, and seek outside help when they think they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves.

He also said if he had his way, he’d rebadge the dozens of sub-brands parked in his agency’s stable under one name. “The many launches of specialist units bring in new revenue streams and shows that we do more than buy media space. But it also dilutes our brand,” he said.

Neil Stewart is the Asia Pacific CEO of Maxus, one of four agencies beginning with the letter M in WPP’s GroupM agency club. He agrees that media agencies could be better at branding themselves, but says that creative agencies have had a head start.

Y&R positions itself as a 'global boutique'

Y&R positions itself as a ‘global boutique’

“They’re doing for themselves what they do for their clients everyday. And the Ogilvys and Y&Rs of this industry have had more practice than us,” he says. “If you ask a client to name who works for them, they will probably name their creative agencies first.”

“What we do is less about intangibles,” says Stewart, whose agency has resisted the temptation to launch Maxus sub-brands. “And brands are built on intangibles.”

The COO of Starcom APAC agrees. “It is unfair to say that creative agencies do a better job than us at branding – because branding is the only job they do,” says Ranganathan Somanathan.

“With media agencies, you have to balance three things. Cost, differentiation and focus. If one of those is weak, you’re screwed,” he says. “Media agencies are essentially about effectiveness and efficiency, and commoditisation inevitably comes into play. Which is why is so difficult to build a media agency brand that stands out.”

A lot of it boils down to personality. Media agency people do not tend to chest-beat as much ad folk. It’s simply not in their nature.

Stephen Li is the regional boss of MEC, who has also worked on the creative agency side with Lowe. “Media agency people tend be data centric and analytical, and are inherently cautious about making a song and dance about themselves.”

“We are less likely to shoot from the hip than creative agency people, since there is more onus on a media agency to be accountable” he says.

Building a brand that lasts

A few decades after being let out of the basement of their ad agency parents, media agencies haven’t quite established themselves as brands in their own right, and the ‘gorillas with calculators’ label has lingered.

All an ad agency needs is a reel of TV ads to show off its credentials, typically with a 100-year history and a name that your even grandmother has heard of to back them up. A media agency needs to explain what it does and why it is different in a way that does not stray too far from the truth, that it essentially buys spots and space, but also makes it seem as appealing to work for as a creative agency.

But that should not be too hard, since media agencies have a brighter future than creative agencies, argues Malcolm Hanlon, the COO of ZenithOptimedia Asia Pacific.

Media agency are growing faster and make bigger margins and, crucially, have stronger relationships with the people who are really driving the industry, says Hanlon.

“The future is about digital and technology, and we’re the ones with the relationships with the likes of Google, Yahoo!, Twitter and Microsoft,” he says.

It can’t be too difficult for media agencies to convince their clients that they are more important strategic partners their creative siblings over a drink or two. But it is proving almost impossible to crystalise that argument into a credible brand.

Robin Hicks


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