Leaning into the next era of change for media agencies

New Chair of the Commercial Communication Council’s Media Committee, Managing Partner of Together Rufus Chuter shares his view on the opportunities ahead for media agencies.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in the media industry for over 20 years. I still remember making media bookings by fax and physically cutting ads out of newspapers for competitive reports. While that feels like a world away from today’s data and technology fuelled media ecosystem, what appealed to me then about working in a media agency still holds true for me today: change.

As my first boss said to me back then “if you don’t like change, you’re in the wrong industry.”

Media Agencies have to embrace change. Media’s inextricably linked to advances in technology, shifts in human behaviour and the meeting tides of local and global market forces. Change in media is ever-present, and so the best media agencies have to be ever-changing.

In fact, I’d argue that no businesses in the marketing ecosystem have evolved as much as the best media agencies have over the last ten years.

No longer simply purchasers of media, good modern media agencies have transformed to look more like consultancies, with highly specialised teams across strategy, platforms, data and technology. It’s what the next era of media demands, an era of AI-powered decision-making and audience-based targeting at scale in which understanding the value of a media impression will be more important than its base cost … it’s a far cry from that fax machine.

But this transformation means media agencies also face unique challenges. Across Comms Council’s membership base of both networked and independent media agencies, three key challenges – arguably by-products of this transformation – have been highlighted:

  1. We need to help marketers and business leaders understand how media agencies have changed and the value that they can create. Rather than simply reducing business cost through media buying, the best media agencies are creating business value. Much like a consultancy they achieve this through their investment in technical and strategic expertise, custom tools, insight and data, and through partnerships and collaborations with platforms and individuals that command an audience. But unlike consultancies this story isn’t well quantified nor is it particularly well told. Media agencies have a huge opportunity here and need to consider all the tools at their disposal including the role of the annual Beacons Awards.
  2. We need to support healthier commercial relationships. The transformation of media agencies also means they’ve become much more complicated to buy. With a multitude of services, technologies and products delivered through a variety of potential remuneration models, no two media agency/client relationships are the same. We need to help businesses navigate this to ensure commercial relationships represent the value that media agencies create. To help procurement teams this also means working to develop value-based metrics for media that shift perceptions away from media as a commodity to be traded for the lowest price. This reflects a simple truth: cheaper media isn’t necessarily better media. 
  3. Finally, the transformation of media agencies means they face a distinct talent challenge. This isn’t just about greater diversity (on which the Comms Council continues to focus), but also about attracting and retaining the new skills and experiences in areas that are distinct to modern media agencies: data science, engineering, project management to name just a few. Modern media agencies are incredible, dynamic places to work but telling that story is hard. The complexity of what we do is difficult to explain (take this from someone who’s spent 20 years trying to explain to their mum what they do for a living), and in this respect media agencies are at a disadvantage to the creative side of the industry. There’s also more we can do to take an industry-wide approach to skill development, so that once we bring new talent into our industry, we’re enabling consistent pathways and support within it.

We need to achieve all this while change continues apace. The New Zealand media industry will experience many more changes in the months ahead, each of them an opportunity for progress towards better media. Media measurement will continue to evolve, media trading models will continue to shift towards audience-based and quality-based metrics, and initiatives such as Ad Net Zero will see our industry accept our responsibility in addressing the climate crisis. Change is ever-present.

All this is happening as the media agency market itself blossoms but, by extension, fragments. The rising number of independent media agencies seen here and in markets around the world reflects how technology is democratising media buying. The formation of IMANZ, which my agency Together is also a founding member of, is a welcome addition to the landscape and one that I know the Media Committee looks forward to working alongside. More strong voices advocating for media agencies can only be a good thing.

But navigating these changes requires stakeholders – media agencies, publishers, marketers – to work together. We all have an interest in a strong media ecosystem which can build strong brands; we all want transparency and accountability across this media ecosystem; we all need better media, because good media builds good brands which builds good businesses. Without this our industry risks the kind of fragmentation of focus and walled-garden behaviour that good media agencies spend their days trying to navigate for their clients.  

So while today’s media landscape is a far cry from the fax machine I started on, I’m as energised as ever about change. Over the next twelve months the Media Committee will be working to play their part in helping address these challenges and supporting media agencies to continue to lead through change, and I know my fellow Media Committee members are as excited as I am about that opportunity.

About Rufus Chuter

Rufus Chuter is Managing Partner at Together.

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