From withholding data to in-housing: 'a cohort' of marketers are taking back control from agencies

Media2020 Refresh survey

Marketers are turning less to media agencies for strategic advice in favour of in-housing data and media capabilities, putting agencies at risk of “losing their positions as owners of consumer insight” and becoming mere “executioners” of brand campaigns.

According to the second Media2020 report by Media Sense, ISBA and IPSOS Connect – which surveyed 250 senior British marketers – there has been an uptick in respondents stating that they will use fewer agencies in the future compared with the first survey, conducted in 2015.

In fact, 62% of marketers now agree they will use fewer second-parties, up 4% in two years.

“We have spent a long time in the ad industry listening to the advice we were given by media planners, creative planners, creative directors, telling us that they know what the customer wants. They don’t know, they are just as clueless as we are,” one respondent was quoted as saying.

Fuelling this shift are not only the concerns around media measurement and brand safety but an increasing confidence among marketers of their own knowledge and skills, in part a result of the media expertise being brought in through emerging client-side roles like chief growth officer and chief media officer.

Data is empowering marketers

While statistics such as these will undoubtedly be cause for alarm, it was noted that the main area of focus for marketers is taking greater control of their data and in-housing CRM, distribution technology (ie programmatic) and “content versioning”, rather than bringing creative in-house which is still seen by many as “difficult to replicate” within their own walls.

With that in mind, the report suggested there is a “growing cohort of brands” that are sufficiently confident to use in-house and self-serve buying platforms alongside their DMP for managing and transacting digital campaigns, either with or without their media agency.

But, arguably a more striking finding from the report was that marketers are now openly talking about withholding swathes of data from their agencies.

“I do not want an agency telling me what’s working and what’s not working,” said one anonymous respondent. “I want the agency providing me with insights with the small data they see, and then I want to use that in conjunction with a much richer view that I have to get a sense of whether it’s been successful or not.”

This is a comment that has, unsurprisingly, raised eyebrows among the industry’s purveyors. "Context is everything. Regardless of the task in hand, the more we know and understand, the better placed we are to advise and recommend a way forward,” said Janine Green, strategy director at Havas’ media agency Arena.

“Collaboration between clients and agencies is of the utmost importance, so ultimately a client needs to share what they deem appropriate to enable their agency to do the best job they can. Working in partnership means being open and being able to share - this is what we teach our kids as one of the fundamental of being a good human being right? So why should we ignore this advice when it comes to business?”

Similarly, Matthew Hook, chief strategy officer at Denstu Aegis Network, argued that the right agencies play three crucial roles.

“Firstly, they are connected to the best and worst practice in the market, meaning clients can learn from others’ experimentation, rather than failing at their own expense," he said.

"Secondly, agencies are forced by competition to be remorselessly innovative in activation, especially in areas such as creativity, user experience and media – and this thinking needs to inform data infrastructure. Thirdly, agencies are increasingly skilled at unifying activation of multiple disciplines around a single outcome and a single data set, and there is enormous value in maximising these connections."

Hook went on: “Agencies that are genuinely experienced, innovative and connected have significant value to add. This doesn’t mean agencies have to ‘own’ data management, but they are crucial strategic advisors, because they know where to find value in activation.”

Nonetheless, today 54% of marketers believe that strategic advice on data management should come from internal capabilities, rather than external specialists and media agencies (up 12% from 2015).

It’s a statistic that hasn’t surprised Pete Markey, marketing director at TSB Bank. He told The Drum in response to the findings that many organisations have been on an expensive learning curve with some agencies and “have now woken up to the need to in-source this capability and to nurture it so it thrives.”

“Ultimately the effective use of data and analytics drives competitive advantage and I believe this can best be realised with strong internal capability,” he said.

Brand safety and measurement woes

Underpinning all of this has been the ongoing concerns around digital measurement and brand safety.

As it emerged last year, Facebook was found to be overinflating video views while media powerhouse Dentsu was overcharging for its digital work. Add to that the scathing comments by Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard, who described the digital advertising ecosystem as “murky at best, fraudulent at worst”, it should come as little wonder that nearly a quarter (23%) are “losing sleep” over how to accurately measure their marketing efforts.

Overall, 70% of marketers believe media measurement currencies are becoming “increasingly corrupted” and “inconsistent”.

Despite the progress that agencies and the digital duopoly – Google and Facebook – would like to think they are making when it comes to measurement, improvements to attribution and cross-device tracking since 2015 were described as “painfully slow”.

Along with measurement, transparency was the most commonly mentioned topic (47%), with brand safety emerging as the problem keeping 24% of marketers awake at night (although only 5% cited transparency as insomnia-inducing).

“In other words, marketers believe transparency is addressable, and that it is within agencies’ power to fix it. However, there are concerns that brand safety is a systemic issue that will be much more difficult to solve,” said the report.

TBS’s Markey suspect this is a reflection of the media coverage on YouTube over the past few months. Earlier this year, the Times exposed a number of brands that were inadvertently funding terrorism as their adverts appeared next to extremist content on the Google-owned video platform.

“This story caught a number of clients and agencies unaware and that’s what the research results are revealing,” continued Markey. “I am more confident moving forwards if lessons have been learnt and certainly the response by YouTube and the leading media agencies gives me a lot more comfort now in this space.”

The full report can be viewed here.

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Jennifer Faull

Jen Faull is deputy news editor at The Drum with a remit to cover the latest developments in the retail and FMCG sectors. Based in London, she has interviewed major business figures including top marketers from Mondelez, Unilever, Tesco, and Lidl.

All by Jennifer