The Great Strategy Debate

by Chris Powell

November 29, 2017


Fearless Girl by McCann New York. Photo © Anthony Quintano/Flickr


With the definition of what constitutes a media channel changing, creatives are pushing for a greater say in how their ideas are presented to consumers


Jef I. Richards, current chair of the department of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University, has achieved a modicum of fame in marketing circles for coining the enduring phrase, “Creative without strategy is called ‘art.’ Creative with strategy is called ‘advertising.’”


His quote has appeared everywhere from online think pieces to scholarly articles, been reprinted in books about advertising, and been used on agency websites.


It has also been laser engraved on an 8" × 10" piece of “premium quality beech wood” that can be purchased for $19.99 from an vendor called Mundus Souvenirs—which also sells plaques bearing inspirational quotes by everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Edison to Mary J. Blige and, er, John Stamos.


Its reputation as a pithy guiding principle for agency folk aside, Richards’s quote underscores a fundamental truth about (successful) advertising: Strategy matters. A lot.




Media strategy in particular continues to evolve beyond its traditional parameters, with creatives increasingly empowered to recommend and pursue their media channel of choice as part of the overall campaign strategy.


“If you can make something that’s entertaining or surprising, something [consumers] haven’t seen before, and through that process turn them onto a brand, that’s the golden ticket,” says Niall Kelly, who opened Toronto agency Conflict with his former john st. creative partner, Jason Last, earlier this year.


With this mindset, creative would no longer be rammed through a pre-determined group of channels. Instead, it would be tailored for a specific channel, such as the “Grocery Store of the Future”—which contained mostly empty shelves, underscoring the reality of a world without honey bees in the “Bring Back the Bees” campaign for General Mills—to help the medium become part of the message.


“Creatives these days are hungrier than ever for solid [media] channel plans, because there are just so many different places to put things,” says Kelly. “All you really want to know is that when you come up with a great idea after having a killer strategy, you’re putting it in the right places so it’s seen by the right people.”


Peter Ignazi, chief creative officer for Cossette in Toronto, says that the traditional agency model of an art director and writer coming up with a creative idea in isolation doesn’t translate to the modern media environment. “We’ve moved beyond the traditional two-person team,” he says. “It’s got to be bigger.”


The “Bring Back the Bees” campaign, which also included bee-related programming during YTV’s Zone Weekend and Big Fun Movies programming blocks; the removal of Honey Nut Cheerios mascot Buzz the Bee from cereal boxes; as well as TV spot and a seed giveaway on the campaign website, was constructed with input from multiple agency partners from experiential and packaging to PR and media. General Mills in the U.S. picked up the campaign, which is credited with a 10 per cent lift in sales for the Honey Nut Cheerios brand.


“We’re all colleagues who feel we’re part of a team, and when you see your client’s numbers go through the roof, it’s a win for everybody,” says Ignazi. “There can be territorialism, but it’s to everyone’s benefit to work together.”


Cossette's "Bring Back the Bees" campaign


Conversations with several creative leaders and agency heads found that the trend is being driven by a combination of factors: the growth of programmatic advertising, growing consumer demand for content rather than advertising (not to mention increased disdain for advertising’s “interrupt” model), and an explosion both in the number of brands (“way more than anyone could possibly need or even know,” says Last) and so-called “media” channels that might include everything from a statue to a T-shirt.


Kelly says that Conflict will “absolutely” advocate for non-standard media vehicles as part of its strategy-first approach, which has been a hallmark of his career. In 2013, while still at TAXI, Kelly came up with the “Rib Stain Camo”—a white T-shirt spattered with fake barbeque sauce stains and “rib droppings”—to promote casual-dinning chain Boston Pizza’s improved spareribs.


The media plan was built around a 60-second infomercial-style spot (including a version that ran during TV coverage of the U.S. Open golf tournament) driving viewers to, where they could purchase the shirt for $14.99. The videos were complemented by online banners, blogger outreach and promoted tweets targeting a combination of dads, rib lovers and foodies. The spots were initially unbranded, although people who purchased the shirt also received a $10 coupon for Boston Pizza.


TAXI's "Rib Stain Camo" campaign


“That channel plan was a product of the idea, as opposed to ‘Hey, we have these channels, how do we fill them with ideas?’” says Kelly. “It can’t work both ways. It should be universally agreed upon that buying media ahead of time these days is a bad idea, because it can pigeonhole the creative.”


Last says that modern media agencies today are under “more pressure than ever” to prove that they are providing clients with strategic insight in addition to efficient media buys.


“On the one hand they’re being asked to create data-informed plans, and on the other they’re being asked to leverage more innovative channels that don’t have a lot of data around them,” he says. “They’re in a tough spot.”


Kelly, meanwhile, says the past couple of years have seen increased collaboration between creative and media agencies when it comes to determining media strategy. “Just a couple of years ago the media agencies had a menu [of choices]…but these days it’s become a far more bespoke exercise because there’s just so much,” he says. “It’s exciting, but it’s definitely a bigger challenge.”




In 2014, Adam Kleinberg, founder of San Francisco agency Traction, penned a column for Advertising Age predicting a “big shift” in the integration of media and creative.


He argued that media effectiveness is no longer defined by simply reach and frequency, but also impact. Creative thinking, he argued, needs to become a critical element of media strategy. “Not all eyeballs are created equal,” he wrote. “The impressions that matter most are those that actually make one.”


Traction established its own media department in 2012. In this new model, Traction’s media director works with account planners to bring media data to the planning process, define the customer journey and identify KPIs and specific objectives, while also actively participating in the development of the creative brief.


“We’ve built a fully integrated offering that allows us to focus on solving problems and not have every problem look like a nail because we have a hammer,” says Kleinberg. “We’re making choices about media, whether that’s video or digital executions, the length of video that we’re developing, and some really out-of-the-box experiences that are a full package program that has innovation at its core.”


Kleinberg says that the approach has enabled Traction to produce work for clients such as Lenovo that is deeply rooted in sound media strategy.




Several creatives identified “Fearless Girl” (image, top) as the highest-profile example of the media-agnostic approach. The boundary-breaking piece of “creative” bypassed established media channels when it debuted earlier this year (“as an approach to advertising, it’s definitely the way of the future,” says Kelly).


Created by McCann New York for State Street Global Advisors, the bronze statue of a young girl defiantly standing her ground against Wall St.’s famous “Charging Bull” sculpture became an instant sensation when it appeared in the city’s financial district on the eve of International Women’s Day.


It became just the third campaign ever to win four Grand Prix awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this past summer, including a win in the prestigious Titanium category, which honours work that goes beyond traditional marketing categories like film, media, etc.


With “Fearless Girl,” the medium literally became the message, leading Titanium Lions jury president Tham Khai Meng, global chief creative officer for Ogilvy, to praise it as “beyond anything we’ve ever done.” The campaign, says Meng, is destined to become iconic—a rare example of permanence in an industry built around the ephemeral.




In a provocative 2012 column in Business Insider entitled “The Traditional Media Buying Agency is Dead,” Larry Allen, then SVP of business development for Real Media Group, openly questioned the role of media agencies in the digital era, saying they only added “undue overhead” while failing to have clients’ best interests at heart.


Allen (correctly) predicted that media buying would one day become largely automated, and theorized that the steady migration of advertising dollars to digital would ultimately force media agencies to prove their value to clients.


“The media agency is lost in an ever-widening chasm between highly creative, focused execution and fully automated audience buying, leaving them without direction and purpose,” wrote Allen.


While media agencies remain very much alive, the past several years have produced several examples of a blurring-of-the-lines between creative and media:

  • In 2013, the tax preparation service TurboTax awarded its media planning and buying assignment to Wieden & Kennedy, a creative powerhouse renowned for its work with clients including Nike, P&G and Coca-Cola;
  • In 2015, Ogilvy & Mather was shortlisted for a part of Coca-Cola’s media planning and buying business called “Connections.” A senior executive explained that the cola giant was seeking an “alternative perspective” on its communications strategy;
  • Last year, McDonald’s USA consolidated its nearly US$1 billion advertising business with Omnicom, which subsequently created We Are Unlimited, or what North American CEO Wendy Clark described as the “agency of the future,” to service the account. According to an Advertising Age report, the 200-person shop is built around a “cortex” that will blend McDonald’s data obtained from sources such as its restaurants, mobile app and social media channels with behavioural data from Omnicom’s data businesses to determine appropriate strategies.



Brett Channer, who spent much of his entire professional career with network shops Saatchi & Saatchi and Red Lion before opening his own agency, Mass Minority, in 2015, predicts that the model employed by McDonald’s will become increasingly prevalent.


Channer says that traditional paid media advertising continues to lose impact as the power of mass media wanes and consumers increasingly gravitate towards content, not ads.


“The old thing used to be breaking through, but today it’s about attracting,” he says. “It’s about getting people to not wait for the three-second countdown [on a YouTube ad] or looking at a Facebook post and saying ‘Oh it’s another sponsored ad, I’m going to ignore this.’”


Much of this disruption is being caused by media titans like Google and Facebook, which not only generate audiences that rival TV, but also provide creative teams with the tools to optimize creative work.


“Those channels are becoming more influential than any broadcaster on the planet,” says Channer. “Facebook has a CPM of $10 in Ontario, versus $33 for television, and I would argue that the quality of the audience on Facebook is better than I’m getting on TV for a third of the cost.


“If I’m the creative company, I’ve got an opportunity to spend less on Facebook, which means I’ve got more money for creative. And by the way, Facebook will happily give you the data on what that ad has got to do to be smashingly successful, and its algorithm is designed to give discounts and amplification to better performing creative.”


Mass Minority's "Break the Behaviour" campaign


Channer says the tussle between creative and media over who is responsible for strategy dates back to when the agencies began spinning off their media departments into standalone entities in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


“The industry made a decision about 30 years ago to separate media from strategy and creative, and there’s been a fight over who owns strategy ever since,” he says. “It’s never been for the benefit of the client—it’s always been for the networks that own the agencies.”


The decision to spin off media wasn’t really a problem in the pre-internet days, since media was still largely limited to a handful of channels, often with TV at the centre. This conferred enormous power on media agencies, which convinced marketers that their access to audience insights, coupled with billings clout, enabled them to “buy better.”


Fast-forward three decades, and the digital age has created not only an explosion of media channels, but ad tech—specifically programmatic—means that media buying has become increasingly democratic. Media agencies are being forced to prove their strategic bona fides in this environment.


“The brands that are dependent on traditional agency models and the networks that own them are not synced with consumer behaviour anymore,” says Channer bluntly. “There’s a complete disalignment that I think is both a problem and an opportunity.”


Channer argues that the unbundling of media and creative agencies needs to be reversed to ensure that media plans have a channel-appropriate media strategy at their core.


“[Media agencies] have got to go back in the house with creative companies,” he says. “And they’ve got to become champions of social media, because it’s become a channel that people are spending two to three hours a day on. You can’t ignore it; just like in the old days you couldn’t ignore the progression of TV.


“Whether they bring creative in, or merge with traditional creative companies, it’s got to happen.”


The debate about which agency partner “owns” media strategy isn’t exactly new. Media agency veteran Doug Checkeris, former CEO of Mediacom North America and now a partner in Toronto strategic marketing company GNR8R, calls it a “tired agency label spat” that fails to advance advertisers’ cause.


“All agency operatives have a vested interest in ‘selling’ the thing they do,” says Checkeris. “In my opinion, effectively influencing potential customers demands a crystal-clear understanding of the business-building brand idea [and/or] narrative, plus the determination and discipline to effectively apply that narrative within the context of how and where it is delivered.


“Smart, disciplined people [who] understand how to bring brands to life across the entire palette of choices—[who are] focused on driving measurable business success and free of their own business agendas— are what is needed.”


So could this latest development possibly create friction between creative and media? “Er…yes,” says Cossette’s Ignazi. “But it shouldn’t. I’ve been in situations where partnerships have not gone well, but I’ve also been in a lot of situations working with [media] agencies like OMD [as Cossette did on last year’s hugely successful “VS” campaign for the SickKids Foundation] where it’s not like that.”


For Ignazi, creativity must be at the centre of every campaign from ideation to execution. “Creativity is going to be the last thing that’s going to differentiate one company from another,” he says. Without it, a campaign is nothing more than mediocre art.   




This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Applied Arts. 


Chris Powell is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Marketing, PROFIT and Reader’s Digest.


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