Plumbers or poets? Why media agencies shouldn’t be the advertiser’s ‘lead agency’

Plumbers or poets? Why media agencies shouldn’t be the advertiser’s ‘lead agency’


Advertisers shouldn’t look to either the media specialists or the creatives to take the lead. They need both.

Laurence Green’s recent article for The Media Leader was an interesting and well-argued piece from one of the most acute observers of our industry.

Green suggested that media agencies have de facto become the strategic lead agency for advertisers given the importance of data-led channel selection and the multiplicity of media choices.

He also suggested that media agencies could go further and develop strategic capabilities in marketing and possibly even content creation.

There is no question that today’s media agencies are highly sophisticated businesses of great capability, especially in the area of data analytics. Great strides have been made in recent times, thanks to the high quality leadership that we see in abundance in today’s media agencies.

However, despite my own long-standing advocacy of the strategic importance of media agencies, I do not share Green’s point-of-view. Here are the reasons why.

Advertisers should not seek a lead agency

Brands should take the strategic lead themselves.

Today’s multi-channel marketing landscape embraces a diverse range of channels including customer experience, experiential, omnichannel media and the plethora of brand communications options.

All of this is held together by different sorts of data, including ‘zero-party’ data, that helps inform product and distribution strategy and execution. Measurement of the ‘vital signs’ of a business needs to be constant and agile, reacting to the latest trends.

The accuracy of multiple data streams is crucial as is the privacy of any personally identifiable data. Having complete control over that data is essential to reassure customers and avoid privacy infringements. It also facilitates the data science that should help brand owners pull all the right levers. No one agency is fully equipped to do this and consultancies that can supposedly embrace all disciplines often lack the specific expertise to help organise the necessary operational ‘machinery’.

The most enlightened clients have in-housed their strategic thinking and analytics, co-ordinating their external partners accordingly and setting up operational procedures to ensure collaborative working.

The recent Mediasense report on marketing trends reports that 46% of companies surveyed are the lead on analytics and insight, with the media agencies in 19%.

This is hardly surprising given the importance of data in the marketing mix and the same survey shows that 31% of clients take the communications planning lead, with the media agencies only just ahead on 34%.

The most important aspect of advertising is its messaging

Decades of case studies have demonstrated that the right creative can transform how brands are perceived, with associated success. While the choice of media channels that advertisers use is unquestionably important, the wrong messaging can, and often will, lead to failure.

Proposition, positioning and messaging is built around an in-depth understanding of markets, brands and consumers, mediated through account planning and dedicated creative thinking. This is what creative agencies do best and why they will continue to be an incredibly important partner to brands. These skills are rare and expensive and require highly sensitive management by experts. For media agencies to stretch into these disciplines would be massive over-reach.

While some digital content can be produced easily, cheaply and quickly, there is no substitute for the Big Idea articulated by smart creative thinking. If anything, we need more of this as short-term thinking has led to a loss of bigger thinking in brand-building.

Craft skills are of vital importance in today’s multi-channel universe

Advertisers need the best practitioners in each discipline to do what they do best, without the distraction of ‘scope creep’. This is especially true of media agencies, who already have their work cut out with the incessant day-to-day challenge of data-led media planning and execution.

The Mediasense report spells this out: “agencies need to be careful not to over-extend their offerings to include everything, lest they spread themselves too thinly”.

Media is an incredibly dynamic discipline which will change substantially over the next five years as the mix of subscription and ad-funded media complicates the task of effective reach, privacy-led identity solutions solidify around the old and new Walled Gardens, including TV, and the task of building campaigns gets tougher. Maybe the Metaverse will complicate matters further.

Those craft skills will be needed even more in a market where the competition for such expertise can only intensify.

The media agency business model is still overly-reliant upon media volume-led remuneration

Although this is driven from holding company level, the ‘front line’ media agencies have to plan and buy according to where the deals are.

We’ve seen cash media rebates being progressively eroded as clients renegotiate contracts to eliminate them, but they have been replaced by ‘inventory’ media and excessive margins in the online supply-chain where audits do not penetrate. Those margins don’t make themselves, you know.

While any media agency remuneration is dependent on which channels or vehicles to use and how the media agencies cannot perform a truly impartial role as strategy advisors.

Nick Manning

Most independent media agencies do not rely on such forms of income but they ironically therefore sometimes lack the extra money needed to deliver all of the services advertisers need.


Advertisers shouldn’t look to either the ‘plumbers’ or the ‘poets’ to take the lead. They need both, of course, but most of all they need great plumbers and great poets to work together. It was forever thus and most of the great success stories of our industry come from artists and technicians working well together without the need for perceived or actual leadership.

Today’s media agencies are better than ever before at what they do, but it’s damn hard. Let’s not distract them by asking them to contribute more in areas of lesser expertise.

Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb OMD and was chief strategy officer at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry. He writes for The Media Leader each month.

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