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On the Agenda

Why Full Service Has Come Full Circle

Bringing media and creativity back under the same roof is the new old thing, but what are the advantages and drawbacks?

By Dani Gibson

To quote the 18th Century Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift, everything old is new again” - a saying that can be perennially applied to the advertising industry, despite its obsession with discovering the next shiny new thing.

The debate over what was the better agency model - full service or (media) specialty raged quite fiercely...over 50 years ago. But not so much in the last 35 years; the decoupling of media and creative became the industry norm from the late 80s onwards. Over the intervening years, media has proved to be the money-engine of the industry, so perhaps it's no surprise that bringing it back to the creative bosom is back on the agenda as more efficiencies are sought. But over the last half-Century, media has become infinitely more complex and the gulf between creative and media strategy and execution has sometimes added to the marketing challenge.

So the full service agency offer has been making something of a comeback. The&Partnership and its media sibling mSix&Partners merged to create T&Pm; an increasingly impactful part of the VCCP Partnership is its media house, VCCP Media - now super-charged under newly appointed CEO James Shoreland and chief strategy officer Will Parrish; meanwhile for over 20 years, Digitas has operated across the whole consumer experience with both creative and media solutions.

What's driving this convergence now? What exactly will the latest version of "full service" look like? And what are the arguments against a full service comeback?

Jack Swayne, partner, T&Pm

Is it inevitable that media and creativity come back together? Not in every case, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t see lots more of it in the next few years.

There are three reasons:

  • Our increasingly algorithmic world will enable ever-more relevant content, demanding more blurring of the lines between media, creative and production.

  • Our clients and brands will expect richer marketing systems, where media and content seamlessly connect to the data and technology that inform them.

  • Our colleagues will want to ‘futureproof’ their careers with consistent exposure to more multi-faceted skill sets. ‘T-shaped’ becoming ‘&-shaped’!

Why now? Because all of the above is accelerated exponentially by AI. The media platforms of Google, Meta and Amazon are now predominantly AI-fuelled, content generation is increasingly AI-influenced, and the best analytics and optimisation are AI-powered. We’re still in the foothills of AI’s potential, but scaling its heights will take teams of all the talents: media, creative, experience and the rest. That’s why we created T&Pm… to be that team.

Of course, while integration is more critical than ever, it can’t mean a compromise in the quality of delivery by specialism. The best possible agencies will always have the best possible practitioners in their respective fields. Some marketers will still feel that means working with a roster of specialist agencies, facilitating their integration themselves.

We’re just as happy taking our place as one specialist partner on these rosters, as we are taking responsibility for the whole portfolio of marketing skills. For us, ‘full-service’ is as much a mindset as it is a range of skillsets, less about one agency always doing everything and more about all partners recognising that it’s only through deep cooperation and interdependence that the best performance is achieved in today’s AI-enhanced marketing landscape.

In that way, T&Pm, and the mindset it promotes, is designed to enhance our service to our media-only and creative-only clients, as much as meet the needs of our integrated ones.

James Shoreland, CEO, VCCP Media

In the mid to late 80s, a new breed of executives broke out of their old ad agency homes and created a new type of company - The Media Agency. Specialisation did not stop there though. Armies of ‘specialists’ with new leaders, new departments, new agencies and new P&L’s evolved as the media landscape did.

The era of badvertising

Unfortunately, clients and their stakeholders are noticing their total investment in advertising (media, data, tech, production, and agency fees to name a few) has gone up while the return is headed in the opposite direction. Last year, 59 per cent of Americans recalled less than one in 10 of the ads they'd seen in the last 24 hours. That's the advertising that gets looked at. A third of online ads displayed are still never seen by anyone.

Procurement departments and holding companies are seeing great returns in the current way of working so wholesale change is not inevitable. There is, however, a divergence beginning to make itself clear, presenting clients with broadly two types of agency solutions and it is focused on where the split started - the media agency.

The agency of expediency

Most of today's media agencies focus their organisation on expediency - fast deployment of advertising assets to as many media properties as possible while minimising cost. This can be done in many ways - technology, pre-purchased media and group deals to name a few. The market is oversupplied with agencies that can serve that need. For those agencies the immediate future is all about consolidation, not integration.

The agency of integrated thinking

Anthropologists will tell you that historically communities have thrived and evolved because of their understanding of a shared need to work together and learn from each other. One of the key observations of how that happens? Proximity.

In 2024 we have a whole generation across creative and media who do not know what it's like to work together. Changing this is a new breed of integrated agencies being offered as an alternative to clients who view media as a potential superpower for the creative idea.

This means people working together to agree on how the idea is meant to work to make our clients' brands more memorable. It’s not new processes or indeed new seats at the mystical ‘table’ but a clear view of how what we all do is meant to work - integrated thinking. Interestingly most of the impetus seems to be driven by those with the heritage of creative agencies - Media by Mother, T&PM and of course VCCP. There are of course still specialists within those teams so integration is not guaranteed.

My suggested starting point for a marketer is to perhaps see how the team answers a simple question - what does what you do, do? Integrated thinking will ensure a clear answer.

Jen Berry, CEO, Digitas UK

In today's fast-changing landscape, the return of full-service agencies is unstoppable. Against a back-drop of increasing complexity, clients want seamless integration, and consumers demand high-value experiences from their favourite brands. The agencies that win, will adapt fast by bringing services together to create unified outcomes for their clients.

Digitas has been full service for over 20 years and that means we can strategically partner with clients on real business and marketing challenges, bringing multiple skillsets and capabilities to the table to deliver results. Whether its CRM, media, social, tech or commerce, having the ability to execute with precision across the whole consumer experience is key. Marketers want this for efficiency, consistency, and impact. And so do their customers.

Geoff De Burca, CSO, EssenceMediacom

If you watch Mad Men, it’s easy to miss the media person, so peripheral to the plot he is. That is probably for good reason – back in the day of few channels, media planning was easy. People often think the full-service model broke apart in the 90s was purely down to saving money.

That was clearly part of the reason but misses the other key factor: in a world of growing media complexity, understanding who to target and where and when to reach them - as well as how much that costs - became harder, and something that needs to be considered at the same time as deciding what to say and how to say it. The separation of media and creative allowed media planning to sit at the top table alongside creative planning and development. For many years this led to an ever-greater diversity of brilliant work marrying brilliant creativity with smart media thinking.

The pendulum has now arguably swung too far the other way, an issue exacerbated by the Covid lockdowns and a move to hybrid working, where media agencies and creative agencies often spend less time together, which is the enemy of delivering effective, integrated creativity, hence the rise in discussions around a return to full service.

I don’t think a return to a traditional full-service model is the right idea though: it would almost certainly lead to a world where media planning decisions would return to being subservient to creative ones.

Instead, here are three ways I think advertisers can get all the benefits of ‘full-service’ thinking without the drawbacks that doomed the old model.

A partnership model within an agency group

For Boots, a range of WPP agencies, including EssenceMediacom, work together as a collective called ‘The Pharm’. Creative, media, digital, data, PR and retail expertise sit together at the top table, unlocking the value of Boots massive first party data set to balance magical creativity with mass targeted messaging.

A deep collaboration between agencies

Creative and media don’t need to be part of the same group to drive creative, effective advertising. For nine years now EssenceMediacom and BBH have worked in an incredibly close partnership.

The productive friction between two leading agencies, each with their own distinct perspectives has produced industry leading work - two IPA Effectiveness awards and a Cannes Lions Grand Prix. Awards that recognize the added effectiveness you get when planning messages and media together. A razor-sharp focus on the role for communications, which is crafted collaboratively between the two agency partners, ensures that both media and creative work together to achieve a common goal.

New models of creativity

In the new communications economy, where ever-growing amounts of consumer time are being spent in spaces without traditional ads, the traditional full-service model is at its weakest. Instead at EssenceMediacom we’re increasingly using a new model of creativity to help advertisers break through by working with a wider range of creative partners – whether that’s helping eBay get deeper integration into content with partners ranging from Love Island to Vogue; working directly with influencers to deliver an ROI 17 per cent higher than the all-media average; or working directly with TV production companies and digital platforms to create new, engaging TV formats.

To most powerfully connect brands with culture you need creativity that is inspired by the creators, platforms and partners that drive audiences passion for the stuff they really love - entertainment, sports and gaming. This can only be done through partnership and collaboration not siloed full-service thinking.


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