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Tom Denford Mar 15, 2013 11:04:15 PM 6 min read

Good News. Planners Will Save Agencies From Oblivion.


The value adding opportunity of a media agency will be primarily in its planning product.

Why? Because data needs planners.

Digitisation of our information and (more importantly) the management and organisation of that data, will impact on industries which have historically relied on information scarcity like law, accountancy and even medicine.

You will have traditionally paid a lawyer handsomely because they had privileged access to the law from years of study and access to large books which organised it for them. They became privileged guardians of legal information.

Digitisation of information has largely changed this.

As people increasingly self-help and self-advise and self-diagnose using the web so there will be less need for these highly regarded information management professions. Pink argues that a world with access to instantaneous quality information (sourced socially and therefore actually perhaps more reliable than asking a single lawyer on the high street) will require a new set of professions focused on strategy and making sense of information in order to make decisions, in short these are the skills which currently machines are not able to reproduce.

Information management professions are being threatened by technology, as anyone who has completed their tax return online, or used the web to complete and submit a will understands. In a world in which technology manages our important information, there is increasingly going to be a requirement for a creative brain, someone who can make sense of the complex and make strategic decisions, someone who can provide ideas, someone who can differentiate.

If you know Daniel Pink's excellent book A Whole New Mind you'll be familiar with his central thought: As technology advances, information management is performed by machines and so "right-brainers" (creative thinkers) will rule the future.

Daniel Pink's suggestion is that industries like law and accountancy toward which we have traditionally ushered our offspring, can now be undertaken in part by technology growing ever more sophisticated at managing and organising our information.

Where do advertising and media fit into this exciting new reality? As an industry we are unashamedly torn both ways. We are partly information management experts and partly creative geniuses. Where is the balance?

Media Planning & Buying

If media planning and buying is no more than mere information management then surely that will swiftly be replaced by a machine process (programmatic buying is already here). More and more decision in media planning and buying are being made by machines, partly because machines are better at finding efficiencies in data and mostly because robot media buyers are cheaper to employ than humans.

It's hard sometimes to see where human's can add value to the media value chain of the future apart from pour the coffee at the annual review of a report generated by a machine. If media buying becomes more automated, how long before media agencies depart their high-overhead Soho offices - it will be interesting to see which big network will be first to ship it's media people / robots out to the suburbs.


The creative design process can't be automated in the same way. Surely? Or can it?

When I was working in NY for a bit, TiVo was a relatively new invention. One of the clever outputs of TiVo's backend data was that it could show you second by second engagement across a commercial break - this meant that clever TiVo could show which creative copy kept people's attention more than others. Over time this provided enough data points to be able to really influence the creative develoment process by showing what types of ads, brands and creative devices were more effective at holding attention? Pretty hot stuff eh? But largely ignored by the creative agencies who in those days found data remarkably unsexy.

This means that machines and data are becoming pretty smart at influencing creative and media planning and buying decisions. For better or worse, data will increasingly effect the creative development process. Again, what value Madison Avenue then...?


Agencies were never designed to be information management businesses like lawyers or accountants. They are nuanced, creative companies, strategic at heart and designed to solve complex problems, not make simple problems complex.

Looking closely at media agencies; as buying becomes more automated and as many clients even manage their buying themselves though automated trading desks, the value adding opportunity of a media agency will be primarily in its planning product.

For many years though these planners have been somewhat neglected by agencies as the businesses focused on the immediate spoils of making vast sums of money from their clients' money in the form of commissions. These same commission payments often didn't allow planning to be properly funded and adequately sold to a client (who actually needed it). Commission doesn't value or reward strategy. Never will.

Big data dump.

Depending on who you believe, marketing is about to become an exercise in managing big data. That doesn't require there to be more people who understand numbers and data (machines will do more of those bits). What's required are more right brainers; people who can see patterns and opportunities in data, people who can turn an insight from data into a strategy for action; people who can turn statistical theory into a commercial reality and grow sales.

This is a massive opportunity for media planners. A rallying call if you will. A great media planner is precisely the right shaped tool to tackle these modern marketing challenges - data savvy, understand consumer behaviours, understand media technology and consumer content behaviours. They are well positioned to help clients make decisions in a competitive marketing landscape swamped with data.

For media planners to succeed in this world though, they need to be freed from the tyranny of media price and the cost audit. In turn, agencies must be prepared to operate on the right side of the value equation; so that media investment is regarded as a powerful lever for growth rather than a cost to be shaved.

This requires greater commitments to trading transparency which frankly seem less likely as more and more media buying becomes digitized.

Transparency will free creative minds to develop more powerful ideas for brands.

Computers can make advertising but they can't make art and they don't understand the special human connections that a good creative idea can trigger. This is the root of all good communications, that it relates to and engages a human emotion.

The future of planning - to deliver differentiation and productivity - is very much in planners' hands. Whilst agencies and auditors continually obsess about the price of media (which is wrong), planners must still get excited about value creating ideas.

Planners, stand your ground. Eventually the industry will come around to meet you, because ultimately clients want to grow their brands and grow their businesses.

Marketers know from experience of their own brands that it is ideas, talent and best practice that gives competitive advantage. Not lowering the price.

(As a small aside, if you have kids and have ever found yourself wondering how pushy or not to be with them about future studies into a profession like law or medicine then you really should read A Whole New Mind)



Tom Denford

Tom Denford is one of the world’s most trusted advisors to senior marketing and procurement leaders on navigating media and digital transformation. With 20 years’ experience in the marketing industry, which covers senior global roles in creative and media agencies, Tom co-founded ID Comms in 2009, with ambition for the company to be the world experts in maximising media value and performance.