Lisa Seward squirmed in her seat as she watched David Verklin, CEO of Carat, New York, one of the largest media agencies in the world, preach the benefits of “unbundling” media services. She seethed as Verklin strutted the stage during the ad industry's annual media conference last month, delivering his trademark catchphrase: “It's not media that's being unbundled. It's creative that's being unbundled.”
If Verklin stands for the separation, or unbundling, of various services that serve a single client, then Seward, VP/media director of Fallon North America, a smaller full-service ad agency headquartered in Minneapolis, believes just the opposite.
A decade ago, most traditional ad agencies offered a “full-service” approach to advertising, providing consumer research (gathering of data), creative (the making of ads), media planning (choosing where to buy the ads) and media buying.
Since then, virtually all the big ad agencies have unbundled their media departments into freestanding specialty agencies that research, plan and buy media. Conversely, what was left—basic ad agencies—have become creative shops that conduct research and produce advertising content (TV commercials, radio spots, print ads, etc.).
Seward and other critics complain that this approach divorces advertising strategy from media strategy, leading to weaker ad messages. She believes in integrating media planning and buying with the rest of an agency's services.
An ad vet who began her career in 1985 as a planner and buyer at Leo Burnett before jumping to Fallon in '96, Seward isn't worried about the consolidation of media buying. She's angered by the perception it creates among clients: that media-planning and -buying agencies should play a leadership role in developing all ad strategies.
Big agencies like Carat are “turning this magical art form into a numbers-and-data game. And they're selling clients on their effectiveness.” Much to Seward's chagrin, Fallon outsourced its media-buying duties to Starlink last year. Fallon parent Publicis owns Starcom Mediavest, which owns Starlink.
For all big companies' boasts about media consolidation, the media agencies owned by the Big Six advertising holding companies actually control less than half of U.S. and worldwide ad spending.
Seward's philosophy is simple: Put media and creative on equal footing and weave them into a seamless strategy she calls “message.” Media needs to work in conjunction with the other key divisions of an ad agency, she says.
The tactic has paid off for Fallon, which has gained attention for being on the forefront of creative media thinking.
Seward saw how combining media buying and the creative side could work at Leo Burnett in 1995 when she was assigned a project for a major business-services brand. Because it was short-term, it wasn't staffed with the traditional account management. Media Director Seward was put in a room with two “creatives”—an art director and a copywriter—to brainstorm ideas. “Our work was smart,” she says, “and we sold it without difficulty to the client.”
The lesson was a powerful one. “It was a big 'aha' for me,” she recalls. “All of a sudden, I could do what everyone said couldn't be done.”
At Fallon, her media team works with the research, planning and creative departments. A primary research team finds out how consumers connect with various media—what some agencies call “communications planning” or “channel planning.” Fallon calls it “connection planning,” assuming that the primary connection is with the consumer, not the media outlet.
Here's how it works: The account- and connection-planning teams operate in tandem to understand what drives a consumer to a brand. The integrated model helps craft the ad message and determine the best medium for delivering it. The result, Seward says, is creativity in both sectors. Plus, either the creative or the media side can propel the work.
An example: Fallon's innovative 2001 campaign for BMW Films, a series of short movies collectively known as “The Hire,” directed by top Hollywood directors, starring big-name stars and prominently featuring the BMW. The scripts were written by Fallon's creative team. Creative devised a media strategy that included running the movies on the Internet and using other media to drive traffic to the BMW Films Web site.
Seward says collaboration is key. “It makes the final product a whole lot better.”