Media agencies’ possessiveness of clients can be ‘pathetic’ says Trinity Mirror’s Rupert Howell

The tendency of some media agencies’ to block their clients having a direct relationship with media owners is “pathetic”, according to Trinity Mirror’s group transformation director and chairman of Sunday brands Rupert Howell.

Speaking at the Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) Content conference in London today, Howell (pictured above, right) said that although the majority of media agencies encourage a direct relationship between their clients and media owners, as long as they are involved, there is a layer of them that are “incredibly defensive” about it.

“One of the things I think media agencies do need to think about is this protectiveness of their clients," he said. "When I joined ITV seven years go and started talking to clients directly the media agencies all got the hump, called me all sorts of ghastly names, and I had to play good cop bad cop, and [ITV’s] Gary Digby was good cop – and for anyone who knows Gary that’s ridiculous. They didn’t like it at all, and it’s pathetic."

The reason it’s a behaviour that should be stopped is that “99.99 per cent” of clients will never do something alone with a media owner, without talking to the media agency, because it creates opportunities, according to Howell.

He stressed that the rise of branded content is not a threat to the agency landscape, adding that agencies will always have a critical role working in tandem with media owner and brands to drive successful branded content or 'native' content opportunities.

Howell, who was speaking on a panel called 'Blurred Lines' alongside MediaCom’s managing partner and head of content Nick Cohen (pictured above, left), and Francis Turner managing director of AdYouLike (pictured, middle), said that the best branded content experiences are created as a result of this balance in relationships.

"It’s rare that we create this kind of stuff alone – it is always usually co-created with the client and agency. In the event it’s not co-created there will still be a vital role for agencies, which is important for us all to understand in this blurred lines debate – it’s not an either or – it’s about balances between all players,” he said.

His comments chimed with Cohen’s, who said he didn’t believe that this latest wave of native content would threaten agencies relationships with brands.

“I could see why it might be seen as a threat although we don’t look at it that way. The relationship between an agency and clients is usually very long and the depth of those relationships is therefore very strong. We believe we can help brands navigate this landscape.”

Cohen also mentioned that it is the job of the agencies to ensure they can negotiate the best rates on behalf of their clients, to which Howell responded: “I’d be disappointed if they didn’t try and give us a kicking on behalf of their clients – it’s their job."

In discussing the boundaries and blurring between editorial and commercial lines in the ongoing branded content landscape, the panellists referenced the hot water Outbrain found itself in recently when the ASA banned its ‘recommended links’ promotion for failing to make clear that linked-to articles were paid for by advertisers.

Cohen said: “Outbrain got ticked off for not clearly articulating that something was paid for, and that example just shows how there are lines you can easily trip over."

However, Howell applauded Outbrian’s swift response to the ASA’s demands, having immediately made it clear that the activity was commercially-led.

“I don’t think Outbrain was ever trying to hide the fact. Outbrain assumed the audience had a reasonable degree of intelligence, whereas regulators never do,” he added.

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