Sir Martin Sorrell is wrong – putting media ahead of creative leads to bad and wasteful advertising

Sir Martin Sorrell stirred up some controversy in adland recently by suggesting media has become the lead discipline over creativity (and by implication account management). It seems to me a number of arguments on both sides of the debate are confused, maybe missing the key drivers at play when campaigns are being developed, in particular when outstanding work emerges.

There is no question the biggest cash investment by clients is the media cost and consequently a great deal of effort, skill and time is spent attempting to make the cash investment as efficient as possible; the old expression of trying to get ‘more bangs for your buck’. Also, when the media boys and girls are on top form, they can make a serious contribution to campaigns becoming seen and talked about.

The challenge is often a client issue based on who briefs who and when. Commons sense says brief both sides together, at the same time and let them work together to produce a coherent proposal that marries creative ideas with media solutions. If this doesn’t happen you can guarantee one will make a circle and the other will make a square. The next task is then getting the square into a round hole.

Sir Martin (left), if I’m correct, seemed to imply that content will become downstream of media decisions, i.e. the creative brief only gets written once the media plan has been agreed, which I suggest would lead to further mediocrity in the standards of advertising.

The reason is the old hypothesis of each side of the brain, left and right side, being the same as the difference between media and creative. One without the other leaves a lot to be desired.

Some good examples of both partners working together:

Back in the 90s our agency picked up the Nike account but we were restricted to only working on specialist press in the UK, all the mainstream work coming from W&K HQ in Portland. The spend on specialist media was a modest £1m annually.

Our preferred media partner at the time was Manning Gottlieb Media, a newish independent that we had invested in. In conversation one day with Colin Gottlieb we suggested it was such a shame the ads in the running or tennis press were not being seen by a wider audience. Our view was they were inspiring irrespective of whether or not the audience was a runner or not. Colin worked out that the same money could buy nationwide posters for several months of the year with the benefit of reaching both the running fanatic and the casual viewer.

Our UK client bought the argument and the rest is history. The posters became one of the most awarded campaigns for years to come plus it elevated Nike from narrow specialism into looking like a very big and important brand. It is hard today to recall how significant this move was for Nike; the famous Cantona soccer 48 sheet came at a time when Nike had minimal involvement with soccer. But the poster became, literally, a flag at major fixtures.

Had the media planning been done in isolation it is inevitable the rationale would have confirmed going down the specialist press route as the most efficient use of media funds.

AMV did a great job for The Economist for years using outdoor to promote their title. The ‘wastage’ argument would have been extremely strong but the agency and client clearly believed their famous work would be hidden had they stuck to a narrow target audience. Who can forget “I never read The Economist” – management trainee aged 42.” Fabulous.

The biggest challenge today is the slide towards multi-media campaign planning that fails to consider the reality of both the creative issues and the dissipation of funds across too many channels. I worked on a business-critical brand strategy project recently that was signed off by the board and then handed to the marketing team to implement. Our role remained as oversight during the implementation but it very quickly went downhill. The client kept the media planning away from the creative partner for some weird reason and the end result was pretty dire.

When media and creative were side by side in the same building there was always a much better chance of getting something exceptional out of the door. The common goal being old fashioned words like ‘impact’, a word I rarely hear these days. Agencies like GGT, BBH, Lowes, BMP, WCRS et al a few decades ago produced campaigns that had genuine impact as a result of clever media thinking linked to strong creative treatments.

As the big groups like WPP become massive media players globally the people at the top of these mega operations become very powerful, they manage the biggest slug of cash by miles. Furthermore many of them are also very smart people indeed. However how many of them have ever been the creator of a famous, award-winning, effective campaign?

I don’t know in truth but I would bet a large amount of money it’s not too many. Copywriters are a very different breed with skills most of us do not possess. Great art directors see things most of us admire after the event but could never imagine ourselves.

I know Sir Martin has been irritated in the past with the lacklustre performance of his agency networks from a creative perspective, in particular versus Omnicom’s stable of strong creative networks. To be fair, Grey are doing a better and better job here and in the US, plus Y&R London is not too shabby by a long way. I would speculate it is all down to the leadership, the background of the top person and their natural bias based on their history. Finance get excited by the numbers, DM folk get excited by ROI, media folk get excited by speadsheet media planning but creative folk get excited by original, fresh, great ideas.

Seems pretty clear to me.

This post first appeared on Paul Simons’ blog


  1. Two comments:

    Sir Martin has been irritated in the past with the lacklustre performance of his agency networks from a creative perspective… and who at the top might be to blame for that, Sir Martin????

    Creative folk get excited by original, fresh, great ideas… and so, oddly enough, do the people we’re trying to reach, the ones who want want to spend their money on what we’re advertising…

  2. Somewhat off topic, but there was also a media planner take on that Economist ad. I think it read something like: “I never put The Economist on the media schedule – Media Trainee, Aged 42”. I would love to find a visual of that one as well.

  3. He is the reason that WPP is only growing at 2% annually.

    He knows how to buy agencies. He doesn’t know how to run agencies.

    He is an accountant and I’m sure he’s a good one, but that does not qualify him to run even the smallest agency, let alone a behemoth like WPP.

Back to top button