Creating conditions for great media thinking in the age of optimisation
Increased media complexity means that media agencies have had to create a different environment to foster creativity. But how?
21 September 2022
Creativity in media has come a long way. Twenty years ago it amounted to a TV sponsorship deal, or placing an animated poster at a bus stop.
Then came the explosion of the communications planning specialists, and a perceived emphasis on wacky washroom stunts and other experiential eccentricities. An unfair caricature because at least their emergence led to an expansion of horizons in media, and a rethink among the larger networks about what was possible.
But where are we now? In a much more complex and fragmented media world, with multiple options in every channel, how are media agencies creating the best possible conditions to provide creative thinking to their clients?
It's clear that the more progressive media agencies are looking towards building more creative cultures that exist beyond the planning departments or roving creative directors that service as focal points for ideas. Anna Palmer, the head of planning at Walk-In Media, argues that creativity is the responsibility of everyone, at both media and creative agencies. "The moment planners start to just churn out spots and dots recommendations we’ve failed," she adds.
Palmer says that creativity in media thinking stems from encouraging people across the agency to "get outside, explore the world, think ‘how might I make this idea land better?’ when you’re looking at your own work, or the work of others."
Media agencies will always need experts to craft and ensure the consistency of ideas (for instance Goodstuff has a creative media team that takes responsibility for its "Getting to Good Ideas" process). Crucially, however, this team is focused on inspiring, training, and supporting the whole business in terms of developing ideas.
Paul Gayfer, planning partner at Goodstuff, argues that delivering consistent creative media work comes from somewhere else, that it "must permeate through" the "very being" of an agency, and requires a fundamental belief in the effectiveness of creativity in media. "Appreciating how it creates competitive advantage by delivering on the macro factors that make advertising effective – getting noticed, being remembered and creating the conversations that help drive fame. "
Goodstuff encourages this through events such as Goodstock, its two-week "festival of media creativity" held annually to cultivate "behaviours and ambition" across its teams. The belief is that this will translate into braver ideas for clients. “No-one at Goodstuff will ever be chastised for taking a client something out of the ordinary or outside of a brief. We encourage them to stop trying to be perfect, and start trying to be remarkable," says Gayfer. An approach that has led to creative highlights such as AA 'Caitlin's Hour', and Eve Sleep's Channel 4 'Switch off'.
Creativity also extends to media investment, argues Rich Kirk, the chief strategy officer at Zenith. He says that, of course, innovation in the shape of new partnerships with media owners and other creative partners is vital, but that all media agencies deliver this to some degree or another. Creative thinking also involves helping clients navigate the complexity of the media landscape to arrive at the best solutions.
With this in mind, Zenith has developed a new research-based approach that looks beyond price and scale towards the "quality" of media options available. This, says Kirk, is potentially as powerful as a new creative platform for a brand. "The biggest clients, where their brands are built on mass reach, aren't saying 'it's a difficult world, we should change our brand platform.' But instead 'it's a really difficult world out there and there a million different ways to build a campaign that reaches 70 per centy of the UK, so what's the best way to do it?'"
Kirk sees the real creative power for media lying in being able to provide a route through these hundreds of alternatives towards the solution that will provide the best competitive advantage based on clear client objectives.
Creativity can also be embedded in the structure and positioning of a media agency, as is the case with Total Media, which is built on a platform of behavioural planning and buying. Stemming from the background in anthropology of its London agency CEO, Tom Laranjo, the behavioural focus has had a major impact on the agency's media-led creativity. For TikTok in changing perceptions and boosting usage among new audiences, and supporting automotive brand MG in growing sales and pre-sales of electric cars.
Guy Sellers, CEO of Total Media Group, explains that the behavioural positioning has evolved over time and now allows the business to think beyond media because many of the solutions that emerge might involve, for example, consultancy work on packaging or distribution through its specialist division Behave. "This gives us access to board level clients, without necessarily involving media," says Sellers.
Looking forward, the issue of collaboration with ad agencies on creative media thinking remains a hot topic. Zenith's Rich Kirk sees media agency good practice as not trying to eat an ad agency's lunch by developing creative ideas and platforms. He adds: "They're the guardians of the brand. They ought to be coming up with the platform, something for us to all build off, and then we like to say 'here are the things available to explore with these partners.'"
Anna Palmer at Walk-In Media agrees that collaborating rather than competing for "the idea that wins" is the best way forward and that "creative agencies who don't want to work with the media experts are missing out." But she wants to see more co-operation with creative agencies in the shape of media agencies being exposed to the whole campaign idea, instead of only seeing the ad solution or end line of the campaign. "Life becomes harder for everyone and I think you get a less complete campaign." she says.
A more significant tension is emerging in the shape of the automation, industrialisation and optimisation of the media industry. Goodstuff's Paul Gayfer believes that this means that the idea of creative media "feels more under threat than ever." Ubiquity in terms of data and perceived models of success that can be measured and modelled is the cause. "Whilst this might seem safe, it’s in direct contradiction to what we all know works," he says.
Forward-thinking media agencies continue to believe in media ideas that entertain and move consumers, but there's a job to do in convincing the wider industry. "Maybe we need to think a little less about optimising attention, and start trying to maximise it again," concludes Gayfer.