Do you trust your dealer? Why media needs to decouple strategy from implementation

I bought a car recently. As a Londoner, cars aren’t something I have much experience with so I went down to the local dealership to speak to someone with a bit more knowledge.

The man who spotted me wandering between cars with a befuddled expression on my face was very nice, and certainly seemed to have an impressive knowledge of vehicular jargon. After a brief chat, would you believe it … he happened to have the very car which was perfect for my needs, ready to take away! As he deals with lots of cars, he’d be able to get me a better deal than on the private market, and I get his recommendation bundled in for free! Wonderful stuff. It was very convincing.

Still, a niggle of doubt remained.

This man undoubtedly knows a lot about cars, his service was excellent, he seemed a decent person and I’m sure the car would have got me from A to B. Yet, his advice was ultimately hedged in selling me a product he has a vested interest in. So could I really trust it?

In the end, I did what most people do. I read some reviews from a car magazine and spoke to a few people who had nothing to gain from me buying any car in particular. That led me to a different car model, so when I went to another dealer I already knew what I wanted – and could let them work their magic on the deal.

When a company benefits from recommending one thing over another, that’s always going to undermine the validity of their advice

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that what I’m describing is a thinly veiled analogy for the modern media industry. Despite advertisers spending significantly more than the price of a ten-year-old Golf, strategic recommendation and executional delivery are still tied tightly together.

The issue of trust has rocked the industry of late – closed-door share deals and media owner rebates still dominate the network agency model, murky supply chains and even ad fraud are rife among some digital networks. Relentless pressure on costs has led the holding companies to service global accounts for next to nothing. Perhaps it’s inevitable they’ve looked to media owners to make up revenue and keep their heads above water.

But crucially, when a company benefits from recommending one thing over another, that’s always going to undermine the validity of their advice. If an agency gets double the income from one media owner over another, that will inevitably influence the recommendation given to a client. So how can clients really trust the advice? By chasing costs, we’ve undermined the value clients place in strategic thinking.

Of course, this has been a problem for some time. The emergence in the early 2000s of communications planning agencies like Naked (and Goodstuff v1), separated from media buying functions, was aimed partly at tackling the exploding complexity of the media landscape – but also at offering an alternative to the growing power of the network model. By separating planning from buying, the idea was to deliver truly independent thinking – a neutral eye on the comms landscape unimpeded by vested interest in the output.

Comms planning had it right in many ways – genuine neutrality is vital to an objective, meaningful and valuable strategic recommendation, but there are undoubted benefits to having planning and buying expertise under one roof. This is one reason comms planning agencies failed to last as the media landscape continued to grow and diverge – get too removed from implementation and you end up losing that deep understanding of media which makes it so valuable to clients in the first place.

Navigating complexity is one of the biggest issues clients face today; trusted strategic advice on how to navigate the endless ways to spend their advertising budget is more valuable than ever. But that advice needs to be grounded in deep understanding which comes from being close to how this stuff actually works in practice, not just in theory.

Media agencies take a lot of flak but they’re still the best placed to do this. We just need to free people up to do their jobs properly – a blank sheet of paper, not a post-rationalised sales pitch. Open market buying, not closed-door annual deals.

Transformational? For most, but some of us are already there.

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