2019: Is it do or die time for media agencies?

Published in Media In Canada, January 7 2019.

One of my friends has a superstition that what happens in the first moments of the new year is a premonition of kind of year that you’re going to have. No, I know it’s a superstition, but here’s what happened to me in the early moments of January 2019: some merry prankster in my family set my phone to play Sam Roberts “We’re All in this Together” at 6 a.m. Never mind. They did me a favour and gave me a theme song for 2019.


So, let’s get to it: 2019, if we’re all in this together, means that it’s “do or die” time for media agencies. I do a fair amount of research, both for our agency and for clients, and right now our work in the field of AI’s impact on marketing and advertising shows that media agencies are by far the most vulnerable to the incursions of AI. Both buying and planning are expected to be substantially automated in the next 2 years. And that’s on top of declining margins, pressure from procurement, in-house agencies, project work, pitch cycles and…the list goes on.


One could find this the kind of news that makes you want to pull the covers over your head, but I see it as a rallying cry. Change is always extremely painful but it’s moments like this that force us to confront what needs to be done with more energy and action.


So, here’s what I think are necessary steps for media agencies to evolve:

1.     Bring the craft back into buying and planning. Automation is inevitable. The skill set most needed will be the buyers and planners who use judgment, in terms of the choices that are made between channels and content and the understanding of the strategy to guide automation into a high value service.

2.     Have a vision of the future: Media agencies should have a POV of what the future holds for their OWN sake, and not just a trends piece for clients. You can’t have a viable business plan without it.

3.     Play nicely with others or else: We are never going back to a reintegrated agency system. Multi-stakeholder marketing is here to stay. Agencies who collaborate, contribute and build will always have a seat at the table.

4.     Lose the short-termism: Amazon gives its businesses seven years to succeed. We don’t have that long, but we can certainly shift at least some of our thinking to building an agency that will be relevant two years from now, instead of managing this quarter only.

5.     Become a data steward: Audience data isn’t the preserve of the media agency it once was, but it’s still a crucial piece of the puzzle for marketers. Walled garden attitudes and opaque practices are dying out (good riddance). The winners in this space will realize that data sharing leads to insight around a brand, which is the elusive goal of many marketers.

6.     Commit to your people: Talent – really good talent in media – is hard to find. It’s only going to get more so as automation continues. Invest now in your people – great client people, strategists, innovators, inventors, craftspeople.

Sarah Ivey is the founder of Agents of Necessity Inc., a global strategy agency dedicated to solving the biggest challenges that confront both marketers and agencies. Give her a shout at sarah.ivey@agentsofnecessity.com. We’d love to have a coffee and talk!

Sarah Ivey