Creative vs media agencies: The fight gets ugly

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(Photo courtesy WorldSeriesBoxing via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy WorldSeriesBoxing via Flickr)

Yes, media agencies' creative output can be eye-wateringly embarrassing. So far. But they are grasping the opportunity, and clients are willing them on

Last week, the executive creative director of a big ad agency came barreling up to me, beard twitching, clearly angling for a verbal scrap.

I did a quick mental check. Turkey of the Week? Not for a while. Bad review in Private View? Hmm, don’t think so. Have we left him out of our Top Ten ECDs list? The Campaign Annual is out next week, so he doesn’t know about that yet. What’s his problem?

"Media agencies are stealing our business," he spat. And it all came pouring out. A media agency had just won a creative project from one of his biggest clients. Yeah, yeah, it was a project he didn’t really fancy: too small, too low-budget (no awards podium beckoning at the end of this one). But it was a creative brief. And what really, really smarted was that his client had got very excited about the whole thing, the idea of being able to commission creative work from his media agency at a rock-bottom price. So the project was getting an unusual share of the client’s time and attention.

"I know it will be shit," the ECD insisted. "But it will be cheap shit. And so the client will think it’s good. And I know what will happen – he’ll compare it with what we charge for the proper stuff and he’ll push us on costs again. And he’ll threaten to move more projects to the media agency. And we’ll end up competing with them on creative work and on price."

Where has this ECD been hiding for the past two years, I wondered. The game’s in full flow and media agencies are in possession. Yes, mostly their creative output is eye-wateringly embarrassing. So far. But they are grasping the opportunity, and clients are willing them on.

There’s no doubt that my fuming ECD is right to be worried. One media agency chief confided last week that a big (existing) client has asked the media agency to pitch for its creative account. Very exciting. Except that the media agency is being lined up in a head-to-head pitch against the creative incumbent, which just happens to be a sister group company.

Cue a major row within the group as the creative agency insisted their media sibling back off. Meanwhile, the media agency has been given enough nods and winks by the client to be pretty sure the creative business is theirs for the taking. The holding company chief appears to take the view that he’d rather have two of his agencies battling it out for the business since his group will win either way, though the value of the creative account will surely be eroded under a media roof. Anyway, you can imagine the politics at play on this one.

Where will it all end? Full service, perhaps. But it seems increasingly likely that media will be in the driving seat if we ever see the full-bodied return of the one-stop shop.

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