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Christmas Feature UK

Media Neutrality in association with News International Newspapers (Scotland) Limited

By The Drum | Administrator

June 18, 2003 | 7 min read

Euan Jarvie of Mediacom

With ‘deals’ between media owners and buyers coming to light recently, the question being raised is, are the UK’s media independents truly media neutral anymore? Dave Hunter opens a can of worms and asks whether clients stand to suffer as buyers sign exclusivity contracts?

To those working in marketing it’s not news that the placing of an advert is just as important as the creative execution of the campaign itself.

Regardless of how imaginative or creative a campaign may be, not being seen by the right people can end up with a useless result. With increasing innovation and diversification in the media, clients and their agencies are now faced with more media choices than ever before when reaching out to their target markets. This increase in choice should, in theory, ensure that clients’ advertising campaigns are more effective than ever before. Of course, this depends on the right media being chosen for the job. For this reason the subject of media neutrality is a vital one. And, while always important, it has also become particularly topical in recent months.

Last month, London trade magazine Media Week ran an ‘exposé’ feature revealing a deal between a Manchester agency and London media owner. The deal guaranteed the agency directors a certain amount of money should they spend a fixed amount of their clients’ budgets through the media owner’s titles. Even more interesting than the story itself, however, was the reaction from the media industry in the north. Though few were willing to speak on the record about it, the story was generally shrugged off by most parties. These things, it seems, just happen. No big deal.

But if these deals are going on all the time, then how can media buyers ever profess to being completely neutral in the planning and buying of campaigns? And by extension – how then can they profess to be doing the best job possible for the clients they represent?

In Scotland, opinion seems to be that these kinds of deals are mostly avoided. Richard Bogie, sales director at The Scotsman Publications, said: “I don’t think it’s something that happens very often. I think these types of deals have been talked about a lot through the years, and I think agencies quite often try to get them in place, but media owners quite often turn them down. Most people I know want a level playing field, they don’t want a skewed playing field.” He continues: “My general view is that I don’t think these deals work for the agency, the client or the media owner in the long run, so we avoid them. You’ve got to be able to pass the St Peter’s test, as an old boss used to say to me. If you were standing in front of St Peter at the Pearly Gates and he asked if all the deals you had ever done were above board and honest, what would you say?”

Caroline McGrath, managing director of The Media Shop, however, states that some agencies, and particularly the larger network agencies in the UK, do have deals in place. Although McGrath is also keen to point out that The Media Shop has no such deal. She says: “One area that nobody in media buying ever likes to discuss, let alone admit to, is the “off the record” agency discount. Some refer to it as a volume discount, which I suppose does have slightly more going for it than the ubiquitous “bung”, but either way the advertiser remains in blissful ignorance of another agency income stream. It is a fact of today’s media life, albeit difficult to prove, that many agencies, particularly the larger volume buying points, are now taking unofficial kick-backs from media owners.”

The word “unofficial” is perhaps the most troubling aspect of these deals. If deals such as this are happening without the client’s knowledge, then what happens when the client finds out? What image of the media buying industry does this project?

“You’ve got to guess to what extent these deals are in place,” says Shaun Bowron, group MD of Real Radio. “I would always hope that agencies have a certain amount of business integrity. I would hope that business integrity would win out so that the best job is being done for the client.

“It’s always a difficult one because media owners will generally reward commitment. It’s where you draw the line between rewarding commitment and the stage where it’s actually compromising integrity. Agencies have always treated me with integrity. My experiences have definitely leaned more to the positive rather than the negative.”

In this time of marketing cut-backs and tougher briefs it is clearly important that sales teams and agencies work closely together. But can this sometimes go too far? Are corporate entertainment events and media owner paid-for golfing trips in danger of creating a bias towards certain companies and titles?

The answer is a resounding “no”. Euan Jarvie, managing director of Mediacom Scotland, elaborates: “Damaging, no, I don't think so. We entertain our clients, as I'm sure you do yours, and we are in turn entertained as clients ourselves. I think it's a good thing to do because you get to know people better, and as you get to know people better you work with them better.”

Bogie agrees that these events are a vital part of relationship building, saying: “I don’t think they can have any negative effect on media neutrality. Radio, television, posters, everybody’s been doing them since God was in shorts. It’s part of relationship building. Clients are aware of them and often participate. It’s mostly a thank you for business you’ve had, rather than a way of getting new business.”

“We’re in a people business,” says Bowron. “People buy people and I think corporate hospitality is a way of getting to know your clients and the people you deal with in the media. As long as it’s dealt with with integrity there shouldn’t be any compromise.”

So what will be the future for neutrality in media buying? Jarvie believes media neutrality is here to stay; why else would clients shop with media agencies in the first place?

He says: “I would suggest that media neutrality has existed in Mediacom for years. I can't speak for the industry as a whole, but I think media neutrality exists so that we deliver the very best efficiency and value for our clients. I think media neutrality is here to stay because clients will demand it. If they didn't they'd buy media themselves.”

There’s no question that clients should hire the services of a media independent to look after their buying. Agencies have expertise, knowledge and, most of the time, a proven track record in providing for the companies that hire them. Admittedly, times have been tough over the last couple of years, and, as a result, it is perhaps understandable that some agencies would look for alternative revenue streams. However, any agency that enters into “volume deals” with a media owner will have to accept that, if they do, they will have a much harder job convincing their clients that they approach an account with any kind of impartiality whatsoever. Luckily, this doesn’t seem to be a problem in Scotland, where the agencies have a more transparent attitude towards their clients. Long may this continue.

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