A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008
See also this later post from 2010 - nothing changes!.
Media folk are hitting the slopes or heading south for the sun right now – the year’s work is done, and it’s time to hand over the reigns to the enforcers, those beleaguered media buyers who will spend the rest of the year chasing media owners and winkling the delivery out of the deals their masters struck in December and January.
The Agency Deal has been a feature of media trading right back to the mid-eighties, when Media Independents wrested control of the budget from full-service agencies.
The theory is, an agency’s advertisers all gain. By lumping their budgets together and trading as one, the argument goes, greater leverage is exercised over media owners – and that translates into better value.
But balancing the books becomes a constant challenge for the agency – particularly as the year-end approaches. If trading has been mismanaged, the agency may have to play catchup – and it could be you that’s funding that shortfall, finding your ads in less appropriate environments.
It’s a prix-fixe menu for media. You know you don’t get the best dishes and the portions are going to be smaller, but you do know what it’s going to cost.
Except of course, you don’t. Because once a deal has been struck over an agency’s entire trading book it becomes very hard to tell who’s getting what, and the agency is often taking a rake off the top as undeclared ‘volume’ discounts.
But all of this relates to traditional media right? Wrong.
The two staples of the agency deal, the ‘volume discount’ and the limited menu are alive and well in digital advertising too.
You might ask why in a world of super-diverse media options, with thousands of websites to choose from and tools that allow management of advertising across hundreds of sites, do agencies use the agency deal model?
Surely, you’d think, it’s a model best applied to media where supply is limited, and share is one of the few levers you’ve got to play with? Surely when a media market is changing constantly, it’s disadvantageous to tie yourself into year-long deals?
You’d be forgetting one important factor.
Aside from the extra income it can generate, an agency deal is cheap for the agency to run. A month or two’s running around, and you can tie up the whole agency’s trading for the year, fixing prices, quality and delivery parameters for the enforcers to work to until next Christmas. Buyers don’t need to buy, and planners don’t need to plan – the menu’s there for them, and the decisions have been made.
Put 80% of your trading into just a few sites, and you’ve got a dealbase that’s easy to administer, and you’ve maximised your leverage against those sites by offering them the bulk of your trading. Using the diversity of the medium to reflect the nuance of a brand’s requirements is subjugated to the prime aim of getting away the media at the lowest administrative cost.
This model has been letting advertisers down for years in traditional media, and it has been enthusiastically imported wholesale into the online advertising business.
The problem as ever, is one of money. All this non-standardisation costs. If you ever asked yourself; how come no matter what my brief says, I always get the same three sites on the media plan, then this is probably the answer.
Digital media gives us accountability. It’s amazingly adaptable and enables us to react quickly – pumping investment into stuff that works, diverting funds away from areas that underperform. Stick an agency deal on the front of that, and you’ve just limited your options. Growth is slower, performance weaker, flexibility hampered.
It’s time for the agency deal to die. And the best way to kill it is to evaluate agencies on the value they bring, rather than how cheap the media is, or how low their fees are.