Leaders in a new game?

The media planning and buying industry cannot decide whether it is staring into the abyss or about to take an exciting leap into the future. Profit margins are under siege from an aggressive client audit culture and agencies' willingness to undercut each other on price in their desperation to win and retain business.

The media planning and buying industry cannot decide whether it is staring into the abyss or about to take an exciting leap into the future. Profit margins are under siege from an aggressive client audit culture and agencies’ willingness to undercut each other on price in their desperation to win and retain business.

At the same time, the mass advertising model that has stood the test of time for the past 80 years is under threat from a combination of media fragmentation, commercial clutter and changing patterns of consumer behaviour. The number of consumers who claim to actively avoid advertising is increasing and each technological innovation seems to make it even easier for consumers to screen out unwanted commercial messages.

Not surprisingly, client confidence in the effectiveness of advertising appears to be in decline. Last year, Procter & Gamble reduced its global advertising spend by 13% (US$550 million). Similarly, Unilever announced a 60 million Euro reduction in its advertising costs for the first quarter of 2002. To an extent, both companies have taken advantage of falling media rates. However, while reducing their investment in traditional mass communication, primarily television, they have increased their spend in other areas, such as digital media and experiential marketing.

But amidst all of this doom and gloom, there is something to celebrate. More and more multinational clients are recognizing that to succeed in the future, brands will need to engage or connect with consumers through a broad range of channels, rather than simply attempt to deluge them in mass communication. And most importantly for our industry, brand owners will reward those partners who can help deliver this engagement.

To quote Pepsi’s North American head of marketing in a recent Fast Company article: ‘I want an agency that is creative enough to help me reinvent my total business. Lots of agencies understand brands and how to reinvent them, but I’m not seeing the kind of big-picture thinking that will help clients take advantage of the multiple ways in which people experience brands.’

For a vision of the future, look at how Unilever has re-engineered its communications planning process, creating a new model in which ‘planning communications channels will no longer be secondary to creative ideas and development, under a new mandatory system called Communication Channel Management…elevating the planning of communications channels to an earlier, more strategic role than decisions on creative work.’

So what are the implications for media agencies? Almost every creative and media agency, even management consultancies and brand agencies, will claim to be capable of delivering total communications or integrated marketing. But the truth is, in fact, that the clients have often been more successful in taking the lead themselves.

Fortunately, media agencies start with some significant advantages over their competitors within the marketing communications industry, not least their traditional strengths in strategic planning, measurement and budget management, all of which can only become more important in the future.

However, these core skills will need to be merged with new ways of thinking about communication, with less focus on message transmission (the words of the advertiser) and more on the way that messages are received and processed. An understanding of behavioural psychology and current thinking in cognitive neuroscience will become more important than the ability to manipulate reach and frequency data.

We should start by understanding how brands are built. The truth is that brands are built in the minds of consumers, rather than by manufacturers. Each person’s perception of a brand’s character and values is unique. To illustrate how people construct their unique mental model of a brand, try a simple exercise we use in our agency.

Take eight, eight-stud Lego bricks and make a model. You will not be short of alternatives, as these eight bricks can be combined in 102,981,500 different ways. Building a Lego model acts as a metaphor for how consumers build brands in their minds. It is our role as communications planners to provide the consumer with the bricks, rather than the completed model, allowing them to deduce a brand’s character from the implicit clues (bricks) that we leave behind, each of which represents a single expression of a brand.

This idea of laying a trail of (often implicit) clues as a means of building a multi-faceted brand character is becoming widely acknowledged. In his recent book, After Image, John Grant described communications planning as a process whereby ‘you have to plan a whole chain of events, experiences and interventions that your audience can pick up and use, to help them build their knowledge, concepts and beliefs in some new direction.’

Advertising remains a critically important means of shaping consumer perceptions of brands, but in order to build a multi-faceted brand personality, all communications elements need to be embraced. To quote WPP’s Jeremy Bullmore: ‘That there has to be some communication between a brand and its public is obvious; but its name, its packaging, its stores if it has any, its vans and its news value, can all give people important clues to a brand’s character – and in some instances, these non-advertising communications media will be the all-important ones.’

It is our role as communications planners to harness all of these ‘brand clues’ that enable consumers to form their unique mental brand models, or at least those clues over which we have some control.

The talents of our R&D people must be focused on deepening our understanding of the effect on consumer behaviour of multi-channel and multi-disciplinary communication.

We will need to apply our empirical rigour and analytical skills beyond the over-researched world of mass advertising in order to understand the value of brand experiences, the influence of sponsorship and the power of product placement.

This empiricism will need to be combined with behavioural insights from psychologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists – placing intuitive and cognitive understanding at the heart of the planning process. By doing this the advertising media industry will truly be able to demonstrate to clients that we are the partners who can best help them embrace the challenges and opportunities of the changing nature of the markets in which they operate.

Martin Thomas is worldwide total communications director at the London, England office of Mediaedge:cia. He can be reached at: martinthomas@uk.mediaedgecia.com