The big five agency holding companies are so deeply mired in surcommissions and client distrust that media agencies as a whole face an existential crisis.
Last week saw the great and the good of the advertising world trundle to New York City for Advertising Week – four days of talks, events, awards and general navel-gazing. If you have been to any advertising event you can imagine how it generally went down: the usual ongoing orgy of ‘disruptive digital purpose’ and ‘purpose-driven digital disruption’, and of course the big keynote on ‘the digital disruption of purpose’. Take your pick.
But nestled among the ‘Sturm und Drang’ of 21st-century advertising cliché were some genuinely fascinating sessions. This being New York City, it was a top-tier crowd and occasionally there were moments of genuine clarity.
The prize for the show-stopping talk of the event goes to Thursday’s session: ‘Radically transparent: It’s time for ad tech to get serious about transparency’. Chaired by former Marketing Week journalist Lara O’Reilly (now at the Wall Street Journal, big step down obviously), the session promised to be interesting given it featured Jason Fairchild, the chief revenue officer at the advertising exchange OpenX, and Scott Gifis, the North America managing director of AdRoll.
But it was the third speaker who made the biggest impact. Martin Cass, the CEO of MDC Media Partners and Assembly, may not be a familiar name in the UK anymore but he started life as a media planner herebefore spending 18 years at media giant Carat, ultimately as president of its American operations.
At one point in the 60-minute session O’Reilly joked that, given his former role at the top of the American media food chain, Cass knew “where all the bodies were buried”. He smiled and played down the comment, but not in the manner that suggested he was unable to pull a map out of his pocket at any moment and start drawing big, bloody red crosses all over the New Jersey Turnpike.
Cass is a rare beast in that he knows how the business has worked, sees where it is going and can see the rabid implications of the shifts that are now taking place as the media industry transitions from A to B. He has clarity, in other words. Clarity in an industry bedevilled by murkiness, in further words. Last Thursday, whenever he spoke from the stage there was the distinct and very curious sensation of the whole media jungle starting to make sense again.