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‘Management thought media buying was just about saving money’: Confessions of a marketer

Pressure to expand margins means that not every agency will play nice with in-house media buying teams. In the latest installment of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for honesty, we spoke to a senior marketer who feels their efforts to grow an in-house media team were undermined by its media agency.

The conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.

What attracted you to joining an in-house team?
I had the chance to join a team of experts who had grown to over 90 people. We handled the buying for all the media our business used. The team had been around for more than two decades so they were getting good rates because they had strong relationships with media owners and didn’t have to worry about transparency issues because they were brokering the deals themselves. Three years before the division was shut, an agency was hired to do the planning as the company’s new management team thought it would save money while simultaneously providing more innovative media plans. That was the beginning of the end for the team.

Why?
The media agency persuaded the management team over time that they could could get cheaper rates for the media we were buying internally. We would be asking for more investment, while the agency was claiming that they could save the business money. I tried to explain that what the agency was promising was wrong. There’s no way they could’ve saved the business nine figures because we were getting good rates and there was a large percentage of spend that was already tied up in media commitments. The agency would’ve been using the same media and many of the same data sets to build the media plans too. That would’ve meant saving 25 percent on the last 30 percent of media that hadn’t been committed, for example. The math they used to get those savings didn’t add up. Aside from getting the company to invest in the skills needed to keep pace with the market, the agency was the biggest threat to the team.

Why didn’t the management team believe you?
It’s hard to change mindset of someone who is so cost-focused, particularly when they have a vendor constantly telling them a cost-focused pitch. Things got an uncomfortable at times because we knew the agency was trying to steal our business and we were constantly fighting perceptions of the costs and efficiencies the company thought it could deliver. I feel like I could’ve done a better job of selling the benefits of an in-house media buying team to the wider organization. The problem, however, was management were so focused on sales, which weren’t doing too great at the time, that they weren’t able to focus on how investment in the media team could have improved things.

Did they stop investing in the team?
It’s not that hard to take something in-house. The hard part is keeping it there because you have to invest and not many businesses are set up to have a long-term view of their media investments. We were a consumer goods company and so media was not a core function despite the size of the team. It meant the investment wasn’t always there. The management team thought media buying was just about efficiencies and saving money on labour costs, but there’s no free lunch in media trading. If you’re pushing an agency to get cheaper then you’re saying you’re cool with that agency making money another way, which may involve not staffing the account well or buying cheaper media.

Was hiring and keeping talent an issue when it came to growing the team?
We didn’t have much staff turnover in the two years I was at the company. People joined because they wanted the experience of being client side. The issue with that was that, unlike a media agency, there wasn’t much upward mobility in terms of career progression. The low turnover meant that the team was able to grow and really become experts in how the market worked. I remember trying to explain to the management team that you can’t put a price on what that togetherness brings to a business but they just couldn’t understand.

Is there still a role for agencies now more global advertisers are taking control of their media?
There are certain things I would always keep at an agency such as TV buying and sponsorships. Agencies also do a great job at generating ideas with media partners. It’s the areas that are becoming more automated like social, search and programmatic that I think the larger brands will take over, especially as more money is spent on that media.

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