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We need levelling up, not sucking up

We need levelling up, not sucking up
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

Media is more important than ever to advertising. But do enough of those working in media really understand it, asks the editor.

How much does a journalist need to understand about the subject matter they’re writing about?

I’ve been a journalist for 15 years now and this question has rattled around my brain at every turn. How much specialist knowledge is required to do a story justice? How little knowledge can I “get away with” in order to give my audience what they need to know in a palatable way?

The answer, in my experience, is not a simple one. Sometimes “less is more”. You wouldn’t believe how many articles I’ve edited over the last few years, from colleagues and external writers, which are overly detailed, too technical, and bursting with “look how much I know” vibes. Sometimes our industry benefits from generalists who can look at specialist areas with fresh eyes and perspectives from other walks of life.

As usual, the optimal outcome is likely one which promotes as much diversity as possible. Which is why The Media Leader has spent the last few months building our editorial team of journalists to provide insightful and useful content every day on our site and newsletter, but also to inform the array of conferences we host. We don’t claim to be experts, but we do draw on our impressive industry columnists who have “been there and done it” in various areas of media and advertising.

With great growth comes great responsibility

Here’s a dirty secret for you: often journalists don’t really understand what they’re writing about. Many will develop an ability to accurately report what they are told (one step removed from stenography) and others still will develop a good sense to draw on authoritative sources.

One case in point is industry analyst and ex-WPP research lead Brian Wieser, whose latest Madison and Wall newsletter revealed analysis showing that “media agencies were responsible for nearly two-thirds of large agency group growth over the last decade”.

I don’t know how Wieser has come to this conclusion but, having read his work over many years, I take his analysis seriously and feel confident enough to pass it on as useful and authoritative. He estimates that WPP, Publicis Media, Omnicom, IPG and Dentsu (outside of Japan) relied on media agencies for 30% of their revenue in 2022, up from 20% in 2012.

We generally talk about “ad agencies” in our industry, but is that what these businesses are, really, anymore? If the bulk of your business is media-buying, you’re mostly a media-buying company.

‘Hi, I’m a chartered media planner’

And yet, despite media being so important to advertising, sometimes you wonder whether a lack of understanding is plaguing the very people who plan and buy media at agencies, or the advertisers who oversee substantial marketing budgets which go towards media spend.

I was intrigued by a recent blog post by Brian Jacobs, the Crater Lake & Co founder and former international media director at Leo Burnett (when an “ad agency” used to plan and buy media — imagine!)

He suggests we should seek to “kitemark” media planning and buying, or encourage practitioners to prove their proficiency by taking some sort of qualification.

Jacobs argues: “[F]inancial advisors have to take regular exams to update and keep their qualifications. Why aren’t agency media people responsible for investing large sums of money subject to the same scrutiny?”

So I asked Jacobs, what makes you think they need this sort of scrutiny? Some of what I heard was frankly disturbing.

“I hear it all the time when advising on media pitches. Agency people presenting from a script using words and phrases they don’t actually understand, or quoting from studies with which they’re not familiar. The look of panic when you ask them to explain the background from which they’ve drawn their conclusions. The lengths to which they’ll go to avoid answering a question of understanding, instead answering a quite different question to which they happen to know the answer.”

Jacobs may be overlooking how intimidating he is; perhaps these poor agency planners have stagefright in front of someone who literally wrote the book on how to spend advertiser’s money (albeit nearly 40 years ago).

But I’ve heard much the same before anecdotally. There was a network agency strategist expressing frustration recently over junior planners who “accept TGI recommendations without adopting common sense… not unlike driving around with a Sat Nav and misunderstanding it so badly you drive off a cliff.”

My understanding is that the pandemic has worsened this understanding gap. Agencies cut costs too quickly in 2020 and rehired too quickly again during the recovery, with many junior people promoted too swiftly.

MediaSense’s Media’s Got Talent? survey last summer also warned that a majority of people in this industry complain of “over-specialisation” as a limit to their career progression. I’ll repeat: sometimes “less is more”. Over-specialisation is almost as bad as a lack of knowledge — you become so adept at doing one thing that you can’t relate it to how it’s good for all the other things which matter too.

Avoiding a Waystar endgame

Perhaps Jacobs is right and it’s time to create a new gold standard qualification for media planners and buyers to show they actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to media and advertising generally, not just small bits of it.

I’m particularly interested in hearing readers’ views on this, privately or publicly. The Media Leader and our parent group Adwanted is actively looking at how we can provide more education and training tools for the industry. We journalists might just learn something, too.

Because if we don’t encourage a culture of learning and achievement to succeed in media, all we’re left with are a collection of businesses resembling Succession’s Waystar Royco — a nest of viperish and sharp-elbowed sycophants climbing over each other for personal advancement.

Media, as Wieser has shown, has become too economically important for that. We need levelling up, not sucking up.

(But then again, look at this remarkably prescient piece on the importance of generalists from 2011 from one Greg Grimmer, who very coincidentally happens to be my CEO…)

Omar Oakes is editor of The Media Leader. 100% Media 0% Nonsense is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our daily newsletter to get this column in your inbox every Monday. 

Brian Jacobs, Founder, BJ&A, on 05 Jun 2023
“Thanks Omar for highlighting this issue (and for quoting me). To expand on my 'qualifications' point, this comes from a need to rebuild advertisers' trust in media agencies. This lack of trust is well-documented, and even though a programme of qualifications won't solve the problem on its own it will I believe help. The idea is to build on existing work and resources. Passing industry exams will gain you credits. Individuals entering and winning awards will gain credits. Attending approved conferences will gain you credits. Completing approved training courses will gain you credits. Agencies will only be considered for pitches if they participate in the programme, and if they can show that they have a number of qualified staff (measured by aggregate number of credits, or credits per staff member) on their books. The blog post quoted by Omar has been the most accessed of any I've written over the last ten years (over 400 posts in total) so I guess there is interest, or at least curiosity! BRIAN (not at all intimidating) JACOBS”

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