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Media agency vs. Creative agency: Which will survive?

In space, nobody can hear your advertising.

Earlier today I wrote about convergence of media agencies and creative agencies. But let’s look at it from a different perspective: Which one would survive? If we had to pick.

To answer the question, let us first determine their value-provided, and then see which one is more expendable.

Media agencies. First, media agencies’ value-provided derives from their ability to aggregate both market sides: on one hand, they bundle demand side (advertisers) and use this critical mass to negotiate media prices down. On the other hand, they bundle supply side (media outlets) and therefore provide efficiency for advertisers – the advertisers don’t need to search and negotiate with dozens of providers. In other words, media agencies provide the typical intermediary functions which are useful in a fragmented market. Their markup is the arbitrage cost: they buy media at price p_b and sell at p_s, the arbitrage cost being a = p_s – p_b.

Creative agencies. Second, creative agencies value-provided derives from their creative abilities. They know customers and have creative ability to create advertising that appeals to a given target audience. They usually charge an hourly rate, c; if the campaign requires x working hours, the creative cost being e = c*x. And consequently, the total cost for advertiser is T = e+a. We also observe double marginalization, so that e+a > C, where C is the cost that either agency would charge would they handle both creative and media operations.

Transition. Now, let’s consider the current transition which makes this whole question relevant. Namely, the advertising industry is moving into programmatic. Programmatic is a huge threat for intermediation since it aggregates fragmented market players. In practice this means that the advertisers are grouped under demand-side platforms (DSPs ) and the media under supply-side platforms (SSPs). How does this impact the scenario? The transition seemingly has an impact on media agencies, but not on creative agencies — “manual” bundling is no longer needed, but the need for creative work remains.

Conclusion. In conclusion, it seems creative agencies are less replaceable, and therefore have a better position in vertical integration.

Limitations. Now, this assumes that advertisers have direct access to programmatic platforms (so that media agencies can in fact be replaced); currently, this is not the standard case. It also assumes that they have in-house competence in programmatic advertising which also is not the standard case. But in time, both of these conditions are likely to evolve. Either advertisers acquire in-house access and competence, or then outsource the work to creative agencies which, in turn, will develop programmatic capabilities.

Another limitation is that the outcome will depend a lot on the position towards the client base. Whoever is closer to the client, is better equipped to develop the missing capabilities. As commonly acknowledged, customer relationships are the most valuable assets in advertising business, potentially giving an opportunity to build missing capabilities even when other market players would have already acquired them. But based on this “fictional” comparison, we can argue that creative agencies are better off when approaching convergence.

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