Let’s Skip the Swagger

[This piece originally ran as part of my Mythbuster series in MediaPost Magazine]

One phrase I’ve been hearing frequently over the last year is “media is the new creative.” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s generally being uttered by a group harboring years of angst from feeling like the ad industry’s third wheel – the media specialists. These media folks are walking around with an air of what my mom would call “I-told-you-so-itis.”

As the media landscape has become more confusing, even the slowest moving clients have forced their agencies to elevate the role of the media strategists. It’s led to a swagger from this group unlike any I’ve ever seen outside of a creative department.

And it’s taking the media practice backward.

In fact, statements like “media is the new creative” demonstrate why media departments (or stand-alone agencies) have started down the path of irrelevance. By failing to lead clients toward integration, media strategists are setting themselves up for the thing they fear most: having no real impact on brand messaging.

Why tout the media practice as stand-alone? If the other practices within the building are constantly discussing the need for integration, why must media folks yearn for an isolated limelight? The reality is that it’s especially difficult to integrate media into the media-planning-creative triumvirate. Our playing field is changing fastest, our language and systems are the most complicated, and our timelines are asynchronous with every other set of deadlines clients see.

The reason the other groups are talking about integration but failing to actually do anything (there are, of course, exceptions to this blanket statement and you all know who you are) is because they don’t understand what exactly we can do for them. So, let’s stop waiting for them to figure it out and propose our own solutions. I’ll go first:

Media specialists should play a critical role in mining consumer insights as part of the planning process. In a world where no demographic is beyond the reach of media reporting, it’s astounding agencies don’t make media habits a core part of the consumer analysis process. The media lens is the most verdant view we have into our consumer’s psyche. For example, something as simple as Mom’s online search habits is enough to tell us her priorities, her schedule and her interests.

One clear trend in all brand communication is a shift from messaging toward experiences. Now that the tools to interact with consumers are ubiquitous, creatives are constantly leveraging them to drive engagement. The majority of such campaigns feel flat because they weren’t architected by media specialists. Although the practice of “experience planning” exists, it’s a term better suited for what media can bring to the table in a creative brainstorm. Imagine putting media in the room with creative to help design proposed messages by channel, based on an expert understanding of consumer expectations within each medium and how those expectations shifted based on how and when media was consumed. It would be a nice shift from plugging creative into a media plan completed before a brief was even written, wouldn’t it?

Large scale media partnerships are more, not less, relevant today than five years ago. By helping creative and planning teams understand the potential of such partnerships, better creative ideas are inevitable. People fear working with strangers and it’s the media department’s job to make sure key partners aren’t viewed as such. We know what these guys can offer, so let’s represent them as we develop concepts.

Finally, there is tremendous value in bringing a general media sensibility to communications planning. We’ve all been witness to creative ideas with a clear ignorance about audience sizes and consumer media tendencies. The definition of “big idea” has changed drastically now that consumers are empowered. It’s our job to make sure that a brilliant idea isn’t created in a vacuum our target audience won’t access. As planners and creatives carve out conceptual territories to explore creatively, let’s serve as a filter to help identify which may actually be the bigger idea.

Perhaps this outline will help blur the lines of what we do at a time when agencies need less role definition between practices. Maybe some day soon we won’t need to say “media is the new” anything.

Saneel Radia is vice president and director of Publicis’ futures consultancy Denuo.

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