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The myth of media buyers' clout

A feature often stated by large agencies for why a new business prospect should choose them to handle their media planning and buying versus a competitor is that they have "clout" in the marketplace.

What that means is because of the business that particular agency brings to the marketplace, it has influence, or pull, with its vendors that can be shared with an advertiser. This influence is most often positioned as being able to yield lower costs for media.

Interesting that the first definition listed in the dictionary for the word "clout" is "a blow, especially with the fist."

That is frequently how media buyers negotiate with publishers these days.

The reason clout is so often exhibited as a primary feature of what an agency can bring to a client is because it relates to the most tangible aspect of media planning and buying, namely the cost paid for that media.

The problem with doing this, however, is that agencies end up contributing to the very thing that media planning and buying outfits resent: rendering media a commodity.

By highlighting clout, an agency communicates that price is what matters most to the media they are bringing to the client.

A cost-centric view of media is what will keep media planning and buying outfits in the transactional ghetto, with ideas coming only from creative shops. This means that media planning and buying concerns will continue to be compensated only for the transactions they commit rather than the ideas they come up with, which means the incentive for ideation will remain anemic at best.

In an age of renewed focus on brand stewardship and consistency of strategy across brands, strategic "clout" should be the goal of bringing together media planning and buying across the variety of media channels.

Each brand team working inside an agency will be able to, in theory, leverage one another's experience and understanding. Different media groups will be able to look to one another for insight, and people working in different media on the same brand can work together to create integrated communications packages, as well as execute genuine surround-sound marketing initiatives.

But putting media together in one place doesn't really allow for better leveraging of media expenditures or yield greater efficiencies. Nor should that be the reason for doing it. "Efficiency" will result in name only. After all, who says you got a better deal than the other guy by buying all the media together, or by sitting over a large spend? 

When was the last time you heard a network sales spokesperson say, "Well, this upfront was tough for us; the agency, due to their clout, got our rates down by 5 percent from last year"?

Large media buying organizations have been using their clout to pay high single-digit and low double-digit CPM increases to networks for shrinking audiences for the last 15 years. This year's television upfront is certainly unlike any seen in a long time, but clout has nothing to do with the market; the economy has to do with the market.

Only clients and the media companies have clout; agencies are just... agents.

Is there clout? Yes, if what we are talking about are intellectual resources, institutional knowledge, and cross-breeding of thinking. But in terms of efficiency yields from the cost of media, forget it. Not only is it more illusion than reality, but by focusing on it, agencies aren't taking care of their clients' business.

Jim Meskauskas is vice president and director of online media for ICON International Inc., an Omnicom company.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Michael Hubbard

2009, August 03

Great article Jim! I was just explaining the concept of clout to some potential Media Director candidates last week, and they all brought up this same topic. The reality is, I think in traditional it used to mean a whole lot more than it does now. Think about it - when was the last time you saw a meaningful rate card for an interactive buy?

The old saying "you get what you negotiate" comes to mind... Unfortunately, as I speak from a mid-sized agency point of view - larger agencies such as your Omnicom company tend to win out agency reviews because of the perception of clout. So thanks for working with all of us "little guys" to dis spell that rumor!

Michael Hubbard - www.MediaTwoPointOh.com