Rethinking the Media Agency

The origins of the media agency business are pretty simple; supply economy dynamics. An agency is set up that buys media space and airtime. The more that agency can buy, the greater the clout it has with the people who sell. If you are an advertiser, the benefit is buying media as part of that pool.

Wholesale buying brought discounts for marketers they couldn’t achieve on their own. Wholesale negotiation brought the benefits of trading activities to the agency. The media industry became a finance industry.

And then the internet happened. Media became biddable. Product and media choices became harder.

2006 was a tipping point. A few publishers started a revolution by leveraging the combination of screens, algorithms, and content to change media value. Reaching averages was expensive if you knew how to appeal to specifics.

But the media agency business model was set. The media buyers undercut each other’s fees to own more buying scale. But data, technology, and now engineers, made the complexity of media buying more expensive, spreading those fees thinly. Anyone running a media agency needed to spend more time working out how to turn a profit from cash flow as that was more lucrative than fees if you wanted to grow.

Everywhere and in every category the supply economy model slowly got upended by demand economy dynamics. The value was no longer in owning all of the options. It was in having a platform exchange that gave you access to all of the options. It brought biddable principles to life across cabs, hotels, movies, and groceries.

Media agencies were stuck though. The value proposition was still about size; buying more media than anyone else. Customers of agencies fueled this, demanding each agency had more ‘stuff’ and they got it cheaper. Even while their own business challenges were often a consequence of the flip from a supply to a demand economy.

The collective strain meant sacrifices. Planning, creativity, how media works to create commercial outcomes, and what to do with it to get there, took a back seat.

Even buying media slowly got outsourced by the media buyers. OOH had been this way since the 90s. It’s about effort and returns. Digital means things like trafficking, optimizing, and rigor are jobs now inside the media agency that just impact margin. In the old world of media, some of that effort was shared with publishers and network teams.

Parts of media buying started to resemble creative production. As a creative agency, you might have the idea, know where it needs to live but the actual building of the ad is bid out to production houses.

Media buying now has those same dynamics but nobody talks about it. Because it is complex and takes effort to understand how that works. It is easier to claim to do it all as that is easier to explain and it gets more ‘stuff’ in the door. But the reality is that today, nobody can do it all.

However, whilst there are parallels to creative and production, the business of media means the same effort is not applied to training people to be media producers or making sure planners are taught the basics of contemporary content — like how the internet actually works and how that informs the shape of an idea.

The BS of media is equally by design. In-housing media is simple for a client if they know all they need is access to the platforms that connect you to scale and pricing benefits.

But today a media agency’s role is also more important than ever. It’s just different.

Media planning needs to be about business and content planning. That means analytical talent who create better inputs for media and understand attribution. It means having content creators who can turn around a meme because they know culture. It means copywriters working within creative management platforms so banners aren’t the shitty posters of the internet. It means experts in media buying platforms who can work like producers, managing activation through the right access point with a deep knowledge of ad tech and data.

Clients are not going to pay more money for media agencies. That ship sailed when integrity and respect for being able to solve business problems became secondary to manipulating cash flow by all involved.

But, if you took that fee and instead of blowing it on the facade of owning all the media buying, you started again, you could step out from under the flow of cash.

It means starting from the premise that media buying is not the value exchange. It is a utility and a 100% transparent pass-through cost. The value instead comes because you have invested in talent who get how media works and how to apply that thinking to solve business needs.

That is what we are doing at Media by Mother and only time will tell if anyone cares. It is also why Mr Coffee, that there is a little punk to this. We have got ourselves into such a state that doing media as it should be done, is in fact a little anti-establishment.

If you have been thinking that there must be a way to do media differently, get in touch with us at

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