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Industry Contributor 21 Oct 2019 - 4 min read

MFA EX: Venting prominent but industry's honesty verging on cathartic

By Rob Christian, Strategist

Education and Inspiration shared the stage with another theme at MFA’s inaugural Effectiveness Expo: Venting. Under a hot roof in Redfern, professionals high and low in the industry gave voice to concerns that there was more broken in our industry than just Nine’s healthy juice vending machine. Why we churn, the fallout of benchmarking for low cost, dishonesty in pitching, and The Race That Will Stop an Industry – i.e., the one to the bottom – became a darker accompaniment to broader discussions about media effectiveness, the raison d'être of the day. On the whole, however, getting it all out in the open may well turn out to be just what we all needed. 

A session of industry and client culture pros encouraging softer metrics of agency performance – happiness, health, and wellbeing – was bookended by two leaders who reflected on the hardness of the metrics that measure new business competitiveness. James Warburton, CEO of Seven West Media, opined that media agencies of 2019 are servicing well above what they’ve done in the past, despite being remunerated in the same way they have been since he was part of one over a decade ago. The race to the bottom, he said, has never worked – and the implication was clearly that it never will. Later, MD of Ebiquity, Peter Cornelius asked – sadly, rhetorically – how we could fight the perspective that lowest cost is the best outcome.

More than once throughout the day presenters and question-askers alike noted that pitch teams are continually shifting their makeup in favour of more procurement and fewer strategy and planning experts. 

Despite this shift, Elias Lattouf, agency planning Lead at Google, encouraged a focus on digital dexterity to facilitate adding even greater human value, as technology assumed responsibility for reducing the cognitive load taken by mechanical, transactional tasks. CEO of Mindshare Katie Rigg-Smith agreed, imploring the crowd to value their service, and let AI free up time to focus on strategy and thinking. Side-hustler extraordinaire Georgie Debenham drew a line under this, saying our confidence, creativity and resilience are the best qualities we can differentiate ourselves by. 

The crowd started to connect the dots: the largely mechanical, transactional aspects of what we do – i.e. price-setting, deal-brokering and finance terms – have become the main battleground of pitching. They are, apparently, soon to be the remit of technology alone. So, how much value are we really going to be able to accrue for these important tasks which only us Turing Test Graduates can complete? The line of thinking explains the crisis of self-confidence in agencies, as we sell our creativity at fire sale rates – apparently, simply because our business is at a certain point in a cycle, according to Publicis’ Tony Barbour.  

Of course, it’s not only that we don’t trust ourselves – Jeremy Bolt of Hearts & Science noted that just 40 per cent of marketers trust their media agencies, an alarming statistic that should be viewed as an indictment of our collective integrity that the majority of us have done nothing to deserve. At long last, an antidote to this encroaching lack of trust was offered late in the day by DAN’s Henry Tajer: Honesty and simplicity. Tajer stuck to two tenets: first, being a firm believer that he or she who is most simple would win, and secondly, that honesty begets trust, which begets profit. 

Having all been far more honest with each other throughout the day than we have for a while, MFA’s EX closed with a sense of relief in realisation. We understood, at last, that it’s on us to take up our own cause; to make a case for the value of the media professional’s expertise; to talk up the market, and talk up ourselves. Second, that effectiveness is not a product of efficiency, and will never be wrung out of a deal prepared by procurement. Finally, that media needs our and our leaders’ moral courage: to care for our people, to inspire integrity in pitching and subsequent service when we win, and to cut through the “complete bullshit” of how we explain away our industry’s malaise.

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Rob Christian, Strategist


Rob Christian is a Strategist at Carat, with a background in digital with Woolworths@DAN. He is also training as an Officer in the Australian Army Reserve, providing a unique alternative perspective to strategic problem solving for clients.

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