The7stars’ Jenny Biggam on why independence is good for media agencies

Jenny Biggam is one of the co-founders of successful UK media agency the7stars. Here she explains why there is still room for an independent media independent in an era of media monoliths like WPP’s GroupM, the pros and cons of online ad exchanges and why her company named itself after a pub.

1/ Why did you and Mark Jarvis decide to leave Carat to set up a media independent? Seven years ago they looked to be a declining breed (and, with a few exceptions still are).

We felt that the big agencies weren’t servicing the needs of certain types of clients. While the bigger agencies offer benefits of scale and resource, they don’t always offer the best service or smartest thinking. Not everyone wants to do all their shopping at Tesco. If you look at creative, digital and social agencies, you will see lots of innovative start-ups. We believe there is room for both specialists and supermarkets in the media landscape too.

2/ You claim to be able to buy cheaper than much-larger holding company-owned rivals. How can this be the case when they have more billings to wave at media owners?

If biggest automatically equals cheapest then there would only be one agency, as no client would pick any agency except for the very largest one. The correlation between billings and discounts is not that straightforward. Our negotiation approach is smarter and more flexible than most agencies.

3/ As you’re not part of a network does that prevent you from working with international clients? Will this put a ceiling on your growth?

We work with a number of global clients who take a ‘best in breed’ approach – selecting the best agency in each market. There are upsides and downsides to a network approach to handling international accounts because no network is completely consistent in each country.

4/ Why name yourself after a pub!?

We named ourselves the7stars because we wanted a name that would become a media agency brand in its own right. We didn’t want to name it after the founders (it’s not about us – it’s about the whole team) and we still believe we have a name that conveys our spirit, energy and ambition. Oh, and it’s also a great pub.

5/ There’s a lot of talk these days about digital ad exchanges driving down the cost of online ads, to the detriment of ‘premium’ publishers. The New York Times’ recent poor financial figures are claimed to be a result of this, among other things. Are they responsible for a ‘race to the bottom’ and, if so, what are the long-term implications of this?

There is a place for technology driving advertising placements and ad exchanges and real time bidding have a legitimate place for a number of advertisers. At their best they provide accuracy; real time results and genuine insights into online consumer behaviour. There are cases though when their role is too dominant, and, yes, in some cases they undervalue premium content at the expense of cheap eyeballs. The best digital campaigns engage consumers in great content – something that can’t always be measured in clicks and downloads.

6/ How closely do you work with creative agencies and how? Do you mainly pitch with them or to them? Or do clients come to media agencies separately?

Sometimes we work very closely with creative agencies, and sometimes clients approach us completely separately. Ultimately it’s the client’s decision whether we work as one integrated team, or as separate standalone businesses. We are flexible in our approach – and we pride ourselves on being collaborative.

7/ If a new food company came to you with a £10m budget, how would you spend it?

I’d need to know who is going to eat the food, who is going to buy it, what will motivate them to buy it – and a whole host of other things. There’s no such thing as black box media planning – if it was that easy then there would be no need for media agencies.

8/ You referred in a recent interview to the ‘consumer appetite for solitude’ and wondered what the media implications were. What is it and what are they?

It was a discussion topic that one of our planners brought to a meeting. He had observed that in our always-on society people are rarely unconnected – even on the beach there are few people without a mobile phone. The effect that has on everything from the mind’s attention span to how we feel when we are alone is significant. So our discussion in our weekly ‘trend of the week’ slot was all about the human need for (occasional) solitude.

9/ Which individuals and companies have had the biggest influence on you and your career?

My media hero is Harry Crane in Mad Men. The trouble is I think his love child works here.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.